American Basketball, American Democracy: The Meaning of March Madness

wichita state players

The Elite Eight is upon us, and the Final Four will be decided in a few short days. After several rounds of competition, March Madness has produced all of the excitement, enthusiasm, and sheer naked adrenaline that it is known for. Last second shots have powered schools to thrilling victories, more than once for Ohio State University. Schools like Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State, which few had heard of prior to the last few weeks, are now the talk of the country as they continue their Cinderella runs deep into the NCAA tournament. The nation’s love affair with March Madness is a bit of an oddity given the public’s general lack of interest in college basketball. Eleven months out of the year the American people could care less about college basketball. It lags far behind college football in all major indicators of popularity: attendance, television ratings, coach’s salaries, and proceeds. And yet, come the month of March, college basketball games become the hottest ticket in town. Every year the NCAA Tournament generates national enthusiasm and excitement that is substantially out of sync with the sport’s overall popularity. How does one explain this phenomenon? Why do Americans gravitate to a playoff system while remaining generally ambivalent about the sport itself?

For millions of Americans, the explanation is that March Madness appears to be genuinely democratic. The NCAA tournament is an institution that seemingly embodies some of our most valued national principles. In 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed in a bold headline that, “March Madness is democracy in action.” Another article from the Harvard Crimson published in 2000, titled “March Madness and Democracy,” explained that, “no sporting event is better suited to [America’s] intense sympathy with the disadvantaged and unfavored than the NCAA tournament.” An institution that is not merely “uniquely American, but uniquely democratic as well.” However, like American democracy itself, college basketball’s aura is neither reality nor fiction, but myth; a set of stories and beliefs that we embrace in order to make sense of a society that seems both socially mobile and rigidly stratified. March Madness, therefore, does not reflect the reality of American democracy, but rather serves as a metaphor for, and representation of, that imperfect democracy, containing all of its promises and contradictions. This essay argues that though we can be critical of the type of democracy that both the NCAA tournament and American society offer, we should nonetheless take the public’s obsession with March Madness as a very meaningful call for a more democratic society.

In his classic study, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville located America at the center of a “great democratic revolution” taking place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that was sweeping away the Ancien Régimes of kingship and aristocracy throughout the western world. At the heart of this American democracy was a “general equality of conditions” that “exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and a peculiar habits to the governed.” Tocqueville often described American democracy in psychological terms, as a set of values, emotional passions, and a more generalized spirit. However, he also argued that American democracy was expressed through a “natural bias towards free institutions” that reflected the nation’s “love of political freedom” and “love of independence.”  Obviously, Tocqueville was describing an idealized world more so than a material reality, as even the most inattentive of European observers could not have overlooked the ubiquitous presence of chattel slavery, wage peonage, and stark poverty throughout the country. Tocqueville was not so much commenting on American democracy as helping to construct its very image, imparting a lasting vision of the early republic as an egalitarian wonderland that continues to hold powerful sway over the American psyche. Though more fiction than fact, Tocqueville’s characterization nonetheless captured much about America’s democratic mystique. The supposed love of free institutions is a theme powerfully emblemized by the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It is an institution, like American democracy itself, that on its surface appears to reaffirm all the so-called realities of social mobility, “equality of conditions,” and a level playing field, while hiding the underlying inequalities that are pervasive both throughout the system of college basketball and our own nation.

A democratic duality undergirds the very structure of the NCAA tournament’s playoff system. Though each team is given a “seed” ranging from 1 to 16 in the NCAA basketball tournament (based on their performance during the regular season) these rankings are largely symbolic, as they offer no guarantee of victory or success. Though a lowly sixteen seed has never bested a one seed in the first round during the tournament’s long and illustrious history, plenty of fifteen seeds have ousted two seeds. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before the ultimate upset (a #1 seed being bounced in the first round) finally takes place. Top seeded Gonzaga in fact came shockingly close to losing in the opening round this year, and the mighty Hoyas of Georgetown lost their first game despite their number two seed.

This competitive system is the bedrock of college basketball’s appeal. It offers an idealized vision of the “equal playing field” that champions of American democracy have praised as reality, and critics have scathed as merely illusion. Behind this seemingly egalitarian structure is a whole host of inequities. Schools with robust endowments and huge student bodies build powerhouse programs that leverage their money and prestige to acquire the most talented athletes, many of them African Americans from impoverished urban communities. The notion that smaller and less wealthy schools have an “equal opportunity” to win the championship is true in the same sense that children from poor communities with abysmal educational systems have an “equal opportunity” to go to Harvard or Yale.

March Madness is relished because it serves as a powerful symbol of the desire for social mobility in American society. There is evidence to support the conclusion that upward movement is either limitlessly possible, or shockingly rare. While underdog schools like Butler, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, and more recently Florida Gulf Coast, have made deep “Cinderella” runs into the tournament, these examples mimic American social mobility in that they are praised and cherished because they are scarce. In historical terms, they represent the “Ragged Dicks” of the twentieth first century, the Gilded Age literary character created by Horatio Alger who managed to pick himself up by his “bootstraps,” climbing out of poverty through sheer grit and determination. Still, for every real life Andrew Carnegie, the penniless Scottish immigrant who rose to the heights of corporate capitalism, that makes the American Dream seem a reality, there were thousands of foreign steel workers who anonymously languished in his factories.

Most small schools flounder in the opening rounds, conceding the field to the major conferences of the ACC, Big East, SEC, Pac-12, and Big Ten. When one examines the list of recent national champions, it is clear that the traditional powerhouse schools maintain a lock on the ultimate prize. Between 2000 and 2010 the national championship schools included: Michigan State, Connecticut, Duke, Maryland, Syracuse, Connecticut, North Carolina, Florida (in both 2006 and 2007), Kansas, North Carolina (again), Duke (again), Connecticut (again), and Kentucky.

Despite these caveats, it should be recognized that the love of March Madness in many ways does reflect a very real desire for a more democratic society. Even as a bastardized version of democracy, the NCAA basketball tournament is a substantial degree more fair than other college playoff systems. Unlike college football, where only two teams are allowed to compete for the national title, a field of sixty-four teams makes up the NCAA tournament, with at least one representative from each conference (no matter how small or insignificant), and are guaranteed a shot at the title. Indeed, the comparison to college football’s Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, is enlightening. The tournament structure of March Madness has allowed a school like Butler, with only 4,000 students, to make it to the championship game in both 2010 and 2011, falling to Duke in their first title game after what would have been a game winning half court shot rattled out of the basket. In contrast, college football is the only sport where a team can, quite literally, win all of their games and not be a champion, as sad sack Boise State found in 2009 after going 14-0 and not even getting a chance to pay for the national title.

No periodical has offered more scathing criticisms of the BCS than the Onion. With articles such as, “Unpopular BCS Crowns Alabama National Champions, Endorses Rick Santorum, Spits on World War II Veteran, Pushes Elderly Woman Down Flight of Stairs, Wishes Osama Bin Laden Were Still Alive,” and “Lip-Reading BCS Computer Kills Officials Who Want to Shut It Down,” the Onion has lambasted the BCS for its elitist, aristocratic, and entitled nature.

These negative reviews came into even sharper relief when the periodical recently compared the BCS with the seeming openness, accessibility, and democratic nature of March Madness. A 2009 article titled, “Cheering Fans, Thrilling NCAA Tournament Disgust BCS Officials,” marshaled the brilliance of fake news to mock BCS higher-ups. The Onion (fictionally of course) explained that BCS officials, “Claim[ed] that determining an unquestioned national champion through a playoff system ‘went against the very idea of sporting competition,’ and that the sheer exuberance of college basketball fans was ‘a shocking and nauseating display of everything wrong with collegiate athletics’.” The Onion highlighted the patronizing ethos that undergirded such sentiments when it quoted a Notre Dame athletic director as stating, “The elegant logic of actually having teams play one another instead of having a council of their betters select which team is superior to which—that is not what sports is all about.” Another conference official also explained that (again fictionally) he would never give in to popular sentiment or public opinion that called for a March Madness style playoff system by stating, “Mark my words, their certainty regarding exactly how good a team is or isn’t will never be allowed to corrupt the BCS—and neither will their joy.” According to the Onion, March Madness’s cultural reputation is one of democracy, fairness, and equality, in comparison to the elitism, snobbery, and arrogance of the BCS.

This is not to suggest that college basketball itself is less corrupt than college football. Both sports have been rocked by numerous scandals in the last few years. The child sex abuse case of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was countered by Syracuse basketball’s Bernie Fine, who was accused of similar transgressions. USC was rocked by the dual scandals of running back Reggie Bush, who was ultimately forced to return his Heisman trophy for accepting money while in college, and shooting guard OJ Mayo for almost the exact same infractions. Both sports are held captive by a cadre of boosters, corporate sponsors, and unscrupulous agents who look to use money to influence institutions of higher education. But the point remains, that as an institution March Madness is seen as a shining example of America’s democratic spirit, the BCS the exact opposite.

MarchMadness

The mass popularity of “bracketology,” where novices and experts attempt to predict the tournament results from start to finish by filling out brackets, only further highlights a sense of democratic participation and accessibility. Even President Barack Obama has taken to filling out his bracket before a television audience on ESPN each year before the Big Dance. The stunning fact that television analysts and sports statistical experts seem no more likely to predict the winners than the typical fan only adds to the practice’s mystique, making the tournament seem simultaneously unpredictable, but also providing an opportunity for even the least well informed to express their opinions. In many ways, this ritual encapsulates many of the most cherished principles of liberal democracy. Whether casting a vote for president or the ultimate NCAA national champion, there is no educational, economic, or literacy qualifications for participation. Each fan (or citizen) has an equal right to express their sentiments through the checking of boxes or the casting of ballots.

In many ways then, March Madness serves on the one hand as a representation of, and metaphor for, American democracy. It is a system that seemingly offers equal opportunity and a level playing field for all while masking the myriad of ways that wealth, inequality, and unfair advantages pollute the very ideals it proposes to uphold. However, the public’s love of March Madness cannot be explained as a result of mere ignorance. The fact remains is that Americans are drawn to the NCAA Tournament because, even in a warped form, it offers more democratic possibilities than the society at large. In a world where income and educational inequalities get worse by the day and political power becomes less accessible, even the scent of democracy seems praiseworthy.

Ultimately, Americans love March Madness because it speaks to a desire for more democracy in an increasingly undemocratic age. As the notion of an “equal playing field” continues to be eroded by corporate power, economic inequality, and lack of access to educational institutions, the NCAA tournament reflects a yearning for fairness, accessibility, and popular democracy. Americans cheer the underdogs, the “Cinderellas” in tournament vernacular, largely as an expression of their own desires for social mobility and economic success. Though the major conference powerhouses will continue to carry off the tournament trophy, unlike the BCS, it is not guaranteed within the structure of the system. Like the teams they root for, Americans can continue to imagine, in a Shakespearean sense, that the fault lies not in their stars, but with themselves for their successes and failures. This is the aspect of March Madness that Americans find most appealing. So constricted are opportunities for most people that even the opportunity to triumph over those superior in strength, wealth, and influence will seem radically egalitarian in a world where few have any chance to do so in their own lives. The NCAA tournament will continue to maintain its mass appeal as long as human beings crave democracy in a world that denies them it.

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  1. [...] eminently respectable Keith Orejel published a great argument for the inherent democratic symbolism of the tournament.  Certainly [...]

  2. [...] Click for Keith Orejel’s: “American Basketball, American Democracy: The Meaning of March Madness” [...]

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