What’s Wrong with March Madness?


Being in the middle of March Madness is an excellent moment to step back to briefly reflect on the nature and function hype and hyperbole. Let’s start with a look at madness.

Madness is a 14th century term for insanity and insanity implies a break from reality. As such, March Madness is aptly named. For many (including me) March Madness is a good time to ignore reality, job productivity, and common sense. Filling out brackets and imagining that you might correctly pick every winner and win a billion dollars is a great example of taking a break from reality.

Below is a quick Q & A about some of the main things that are wrong (or insane) about March Madness

Question #1: Who will win the NCAA basketball tournament?

The winner of the NCAA tournament will be (surprise) the NCAA and all rich folks who stand to get richer based on their associations with the NCAA. This includes a certain wealthy man whom I’ll refer to as “he-who-will-not-be-named,” NCAA sponsors, CBS, and Vegas. It will also include one team with a rich coach who makes more than $2,000,000 a year and a roster of about 15 relatively poor guys who make hardly anything (but one or two of which will make bank next year). My point is that you shouldn’t confuse March Madness with a charity benefit. This tournament is designed to do that good old American thing of helping the rich get richer while the rest of us take a break from reality and experience entertainment.

Question #2: Who will be the losers?

Nearly everyone else will be the losers. Last year, Harvard Business Review estimated the cost of the NCAA tournament in losses to worker productivity to be from $175 million to $1 billion. There also will be 67 teams (not to mention the non-qualifiers) who will be admirably labelled losers. In addition, even the winners (players who have spent substantial time and effort working and playing together) will be generally uncompensated.

Question #3: Seriously, who should I bet on?

First thoughts on this: (a) Bet on the home team; (b) bet on the East coast; and (c) bet on the favorites (aka: the big names). Even though the NCAA tournament is played at neutral sites, like most things NCAA, this is only partly true. This year, we have Florida in Florida, Duke in Raleigh, NC, Wisconsin in Wisconsin, and Kansas in far off St. Louis, Missouri. Of course, this doesn’t always work out (think Duke), but it’s a good start. Also, NCAA basketball nearly always tilts Eastward. This is related to ESPN’s contractual preference for Eastern conferences (and efforts to ignore the left coast). Finally, come crunch time, the big name players and coaches will get the call (or non-call) from the officials. In the end, when it comes to NCAA basketball, the refs appear unable to help themselves from favoring the favorites.

Question #4: Who will be the winning coach?

When in doubt, it makes sense to tip your hat to whoever has the most resources. Consequently, consider what the following well-dressed coaches make annually (and compare it to what their players and college/university presidents and professors make) and then go with the resource rich . . . because this is America, where the rich are usually favored in the lottery of who gets richer.

  1. Duke (Mike Krzyzewski: $7+ million) – oops, lost already
  2. Louisville (Rick Pitino: About $5 million)
  3. Kansas (Bill Self: About $5 million)
  4. Michigan State (Tom Izzo: About $4 million)
  5. Florida (Billy Donovan (About $4 million)
  6. Ohio State (Thad Matta: About $3 million) – oops, lost already
  7. Indiana (Tom Crean: About $3 million) – oops, didn’t make the NCAAs
  8. Arizona (Sean Miller: About $2.5 million)
  9. Wisconsin (Bo Ryan: Over $2 million)
  10. Villanova (Jay Wright: Over $2 million) – oops, lost already.

Based on the preceding list, it looks to be a good year for the Big Ten. Or a bad year, if they spend all that money and come up with what I think they’ll come up with.

Question #5: Who will win the sportsmanship award?

Of course, there is NO sportsmanship award, but if there was one, I’d give it to all the players and coaches who display fabulous restraint despite exposure to stupefying heckling fans and enigmatic basketball officiating. They will rarely complain. They won’t storm the stands to try to shut the mouths of fans who should be arrested for what they say. They will just politely take all the crap aimed their direction. Seriously, the players are 18 to 23-year-olds and they show WAY more maturity than we should expect . . . which is why college basketball really needs to do something to protect them from the fans and the officials.

Question #6: How can you make yourself even more insane?

The is simple: just read any of a bevy of sports message boards on the Internet. If you read these you’ll be exposed to perhaps the most inane and ridiculous commentary on the face of the planet. My advice: Just say no to reading the message (comment) boards. I’ve done it and nearly always instantly regret the effect it has on my mental health.

Question #7: Why all the upsets?

There will be upsets because there are always upsets and we know from decades of tightly controlled psychological research that the best predictor of the future is the past. We also know that the only thing people can really predict is the past . . . which is why I’ll be submitting my Billion dollar bracket right after the tourney ends.

The other reason we know there will be upsets is because most members of the NCAA selection committee can’t see very far past the three letters they’ve scrawled right next to their navels. These letters are R-P-I. You probably know that RPI stands for ratings percentage index. What you may not know is that the RPI is seriously flawed. I mean seriously. That’s why the 12 seeds nearly always beat the 5 seeds. And did anyone really think that UMASS was a 6 seed or Duke a 3 seed or Ohio State (5-4 in their last nine games) deserved a 6 seed? The RPI is a bogus statistical procedure that tends to help teams from BIG conferences with more money. Unfortunately, odds-makers at Vegas could do a better job at seeding the NCAA tournament than the selection committee.

Question #8: Why didn’t anyone win the Billion dollars

“He who will not be named” did a big promotion of temporary March insanity when he offered one Billion dollars for a perfect bracket. This was such a scam that. . . hahaha. . . you could almost hear the evil laugh. Like most scams, this was just a publicity stunt. You would have better odds of winning two back-to-back powerball lotteries with two single tickets than the Billion dollars of “He who won’t be named.” If you really thought you could win, then, although I’m generally against psychotropic medications, I would recommend Lithium. This is all really too bad because I used to respect the man I won’t be naming.

Okay. Let me end with an apology. I would have started with an apology but the great author Henry James said you should never start a letter with an apology. So here’s my closing apology: Sorry for going all negative. I love college basketball. I just hate the fans, the refs, the selection committee, and the unequal distribution of the wealth and glory. Besides, my bracket got busted, so I’m in an insanely bad mood.

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4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with March Madness?”

    1. Hi Andrew.

      Thanks for that excellent point. Obviously my expectations are a problem. I also should clarify that I’m not all that grouchy about MM, but must have come off that way.

      Best,

      John SF

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