Hello again, sports fans. Sorry I was gone last week. I was in Minneapolis to accept a graphic design award through Wednesday, then spent the rest of the week trying to catch up from the trip. I did get time to enter five spectacularly pathetic losing NCAA tourney brackets on espn.com's fantasy challenge, proving once again that I can be just as wrong as the so-called experts who get paid to do what I do for free--express sports opinions.
I don't think there's anything more American that March Madness, because it expresses two of our culture's most prominent qualities. One is a myth, and the other is an unpleasant reality.
The myth is that Americans like the underdog. Oh, we do in sports, because it helps reinforce the myth that it works that way in real life. We love a "David and Goliath" story because we've been fed the Horatio Alger b.s. line all our lives, that America provides anyone with the opportunity to achieve and succeed. That's a nice bedtime story, but reality hardly ever fits that pattern. That's why we love to see it happen in sports. Whenever an unknown team rises up to beat a national powerhouse, most people who don't have some vested interest in one team or the other love to see the underdog upset the favorite (except for chronic gamblers, of course, but that's another story for another day).
This year's tournament has been exceptional for some stunning upsets. Two No. 2 seeds (UConn and Wake Forest) have been sent home, a stunning three No. 3 seeds (Kansas, Oklahoma, Gonzaga) are watching the rest of the tourney on TV, and two No. 4's (Syracuse and Boston College) are gone. Sure, my brackets are ruined, and so are yours, probably.
We love watching little schools like Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Vermont and Bucknell knock off the big boys because it reinforces the underdog myth that we almost never see outside the sports arena. Anyone taking on Microsoft? Rush Limbaugh going to jail anytime soon? How about Ken Lay? In real life, money talks, and the rich and powerful usually get a free pass while the regular guys get screwed. Don't believe me? Try scoring ten grand worth of Oxycontin on the street and see how long you stay out of jail for illegal drug possession. It helps if you're the official mouthpiece of the ruling party in the nation.
But the myth is necessary for the ruling class. Without the myth of the underdog, we would have to face the real economic realities of the nation: poverty, poor health care, atrocious public education, disparity in wealth and incomes, the list goes on. This myth is the reason why poor people keep re-electing rich men who vote for tax cuts for their rich friends at the expense of the poor who voted for them, and sports reinforces the myth. So be it.
The reality that March Madness reveals comes from a remarkable German word, "schadenfreude," which means "taking delight in another's misfortune." This is the real appeal of the tournament for me, especially since I'm an alum of the University of Missouri, a college synonymous with NCAA tournament futility (not to mention NIT failures, as well--we suck on so many levels!). I take unashamed glee at watching Kansas and Oklahoma collapse like a Democratic presidential campaign. I love watching the teams that East Coast wankers like Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps love--UConn, Syracuse, Wake Forest--lose to teams that hardly merit a line of agate type in the local sports page. Joy, joy, joy!
Of course, in the end, it will probably be a couple of No. 1 seeds facing off for the national championship, as it usually happens. In real life, not only does the underdog rarely win, he usually never even gets a chance to get into the game.