March Madness has claimed another victim: my wife of almost 40 years. Although she has long been a sports fan -- it is hard not to be infected when your spouse spends his time teaching Sports Law, researching books about the business of sports and writing this blog -- Fran had never become a fanatic, at least until now. The 2009 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, however, has changed all of that.
Our younger son put together an Abrams Family tournament on ESPN.com . The prize: "Bragging rights for a full year." We all dutifully filled out our brackets, using the best information available and our individual intuitions -- which really meant making guesses. There are many experts out there who are ready to help. Every website has someone with the inside information on why Podunk U. will be the first #16 team to upset a number #1 seed -- but none of them apparently have gotten rich from their insights. None of the experts has moved to Las Vegas and retired based on his winnings. (And, as you know by now, Podunk did not prevail.)
As noon came on the first Thursday of the Tournament, my wife began accumulating win after win. Her demeanor changed. Suddenly, she became an avid basketball fan. It is nice to win. Holding her brackets in her right hand throughout the day, she checked off her victories. I was content to periodically review my successes -- and my failures. Currently, my wife's entry is in the top 1.5% of the country, according to ESPN. I am somewhere near the middle.
March Madness has taken hold. They say that worker absenteeism is extraordinarily high on the first Thursday and Friday of the Tournament. Maybe unions should negotiate for those days as official paid holidays along with the Fourth of July? Employers have learned not to plan any important projects for those days. Faculty members have been known to cancel classes. Even employees who come to work are obsessed with their brackets and productivity falls like the Dow.
I knew it was going to be a time of significant "change" in basketball when our hoops-happy President went on ESPN to make public his selections and, even more impressively, explained why he selected X over Y. Last time I checked, President Obama and I are about even in terms of our percentage success. I just hope he has more success with the banks and the auto companies.
Most of those afflicted by March Madness participate in office pools. Almost 20% of all employees participate in those pools. These annual festivities often are accompanied by a small wager "to make it interesting." This gambling is, of course, illegal, but as long as you duly report your winnings to the Internal Revenue Service, you should not see this activity as a moral or ethical failing. It is probably as dangerous as smoking marijuana. The pool will likely be won by someone who liked the color of a team's uniform.
It is critical, however, to know which team you have picked to win the contest you are watching. Otherwise, it can be very confusing. My wife and I were rooting for Michigan to beat Clemson in the first round. That made sense. Our younger son graduated from Michigan. Michigan prevailed, and only then did Fran realize that she had picked Clemson to win! She would not make that mistake again.
Before the sun was up, I was awoken one day by tapping on the computer keyboard. Fran had fallen asleep before the end of the last game of the day, and during in the middle of the night she had gone to the computer to check out how "her teams" had done. This was a new form of behavior. She had been captured by the excitement of the Tournament. She was not alone, of course. Millions of Americans are spending this week debating the merits of UConn, Louisville, Memphis, UNC, and Pittsburgh. (If some other team wins, I would be surprised, but as I have already made clear, don't rely on my advice.)
Although previously in this blog I have excoriated the NCAA for its collusive antitrust violations and its maintenance of a peonage system where the entertainers -- the so-called "student athletes" --are woefully underpaid, I will hold off on my annual screed in order to praise this spring festival. (I do wonder, however, given the public outrage over the bonuses for the under-producing AIG executives whether Congress should tax at 90% the multi-million dollar salaries of college coaches, but only if they do not make it to the Sweet Sixteen.)
The NCAA Tournament is as close as we get to a national sporting festival. All Division I conferences are represented, even if the teams don't stand a ghost of a chance against the traditional basketball powers with very tall, wide, quick and accurate shooters and defenders. We glory in the Cinderella aspects of the event when an unknown team makes it to the Round of 16, but then always fails as the competition grows even stronger. (Yes, I do remember Villanova's upset of Georgetown in 1985, but please note for the record that before Nova Rollie Massimino was a high school coach in Lexington, Massachusetts where my wife taught, and he coached their faculty team to victory in donkey basketball!) It is also so American to root for your own team. (My undergraduate roots in Ithaca can explain my foolish pick of Cornell to beat Missouri. Do not pick with your heart. It is better to pick by the seat of your pants.)
The games are just fun, a commodity in short supply at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed and the economy has gone into the dumper. Most games come down to the final few minutes or even the final shot. Even the agony of defeat is short-lived because CBS has already shifted you to another game somewhere else in the country with only 37 seconds left. Now who do I have in this game?