Long live March Madness

George Mason beats perennial power North Carolina? Wichita State beats Tennessee, Bradley beats Kansas, who would have thought?

Talk about the perfect assignment — being asked to write about the number one sporting event (OK, I might be a little biased) taking place in our country: March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournaments pitting 64 men’s and women’s basketball teams (in separate tourneys) that take almost three weeks to complete. The tourneys’ one-loss-and-you’re-out format only adds to the excitement and chaos.

I’ve spent parts of my adult life in Maine, New Jersey and New York. At each stop, I picked local teams to root for (I have soft spots for the University of Maine Black Bears and the Peacocks of St Peter’s College.) But I grew up in Indiana and I’ll always be loyal to the Hoosiers of Indiana University.

Why does someone like myself become so wired that staying up till 12:30 a.m. to watch a game (like I did March 16 to cheer on my Hoosiers), and then another hour calling friends to talk about it, seem normal?

Well … it’s all about the games. Every Division I conference (and there are over 300 men’s and women’s Division I programs) has a season-ending tourney and the 30 winners automatically gain entry into the NCAA tourney. The 34 other NCAA competitors are picked at-large and mainly come from the “power,” i.e. big, conferences like the “Big 10.”

Many of the 30 conference winners come from small conferences, and seldom get national television exposure or the chance to have that once in a lifetime experience of going up against the best. While I have favorite teams I root for, there is nothing like a relatively unknown or unranked team ending the season of a major college power.

Over the years there have been some outstanding upsets. In 1996 Princeton shocked UCLA 43-41. In 2001, tiny Hampton University upset Iowa State. One of my favorites was in 1998 when the coach’s son heaved a half-court toss as time expired and Valparaiso beat Mississippi 70-69.

Businesses complain that during March Madness employees spend too much work time collecting money for office pools, filling out brackets, and — when the boss isn’t looking — watching live game video on their computer screens. Yes, I’ve been guilty of all three, but I don’t buy the lost productivity line that gets peddled. Multitasking keeps one’s mind sharp, right?

Several other reasons make this tourney magical. Although all levels of sports, from youth leagues through professional, are influenced by commercialization and an over-emphasis on winning, the degree to which they are tends to be lower on the college level as compared to the professional. Watch a college sporting event and you’ll see lots of emotion, drama and tears, from both winners and losers. You’ll see pep bands, parents and fans of all ages cheering.

In addition, on the college level there is more of an attempt to keep the lid on unsportsmanlike conduct and fans can be shown the exit for racist, derogatory and boorish actions towards athletes, officials and other fans. College sports have also approved a series of recommendations on principles of diversity and inclusion that limit the use of Native American mascots, nicknames and imagery. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too much longer for several professional teams to do likewise.

While many teams, including some of my favorites, have already been eliminated, plenty of good games remain. That’s another great thing about this tournament: if your favorite team loses, you can always start rooting for someone else!