March is a great month to be a sports fan. Professional basketball has entered its second half of the season, and teams are starting to make the collective playoff push. Unless, of course, you are tipping the scales in the opposite direction in hopes of locking up a talented college prospect (looking at you 76ers). Nevertheless, spring training has begun, ushering in the start of another MLB season. NFL free agency is in full throttle, as is the bidding war over talented professionals in those precious waning years of their prime.
However, the real highlight of the month is of course March Madness: college basketball’s national tournament. March Madness is one of those rare examples of sport collective enthusiasm. It seems no matter where you live, if you are or aren’t a basketball fan, or a sports fan period, there exists at the bare minimum an appreciation for the event. This event is unique in the spectrum of American sports for a number of reasons, and is similar to the World Cup and the Olympics in the spirit it fosters.
First, this tournament is the epitome of pure, unadulterated competition. College athletes’ status as amateurs has been debated for various reasons—primarily the monetary injustice where the athletes earn millions for their prospective schools and are not compensated. But, this event is one of few examples where amateurism is an essential advantage. The athletes that will be vying for a national championship over the remainder of March are motivated by pride alone. Winning will bring prestige to their university, to themselves, and to their fans. College athletes are not corrupted by monetary incentives like advertisement deals or production bonuses, and their play is not influenced by looming contract negotiations or trade talks. Rather they want to win because it will bring pride for their school. That is something that is special and rare; similar to the nationalism expressed during the World Cup and the Olympics, where athletes primary incentive to win is to honor their home country.
Second, the organization of the tournamentis unique in its equity. Like the United States it is democratic—due to 32 automatic bids from the champions of each conference. Every school has an equal chance to win it all, no matter if they are in a powerhouse conference likethe ACC, or a weaker mid-major like the Missouri Valley Conference. The remaining 36 teams that are given berths to the big dance earn their spots by who is most deserving—based on factors like strength of schedule/conference, wins/losses, ranking, etcetera. It is win or go home, and only that type of system can foster the fervor that is seen nationwide by sports fans and non sports fans alike. Almost yearly there is a “cinderella story” that captivates the fans and becomes the centerpiece of that years tournament—not solely because it is entertaining to root for an underdog, but, because it embodies the “American dream” that this country was founded upon. No other sporting event so frequently captures that innocence of heart and dreaming spirit this country was founded upon. Where college football’s “playoffs” are organized by this ambiguous system where teams are arbitrarily selected to play in bowl games, MarchMadness epitomizes fairness and an equal shot for everyone.
Finally, March Madness in particular is youthful in spirit and uncorrupted by the recurring conversations that dominate sports talk and commentary. I am speaking of course of the dreaded “legacy conversation” that monopolizes sports radio after any major championship. After March Madness is over what follows is a celebration of an incredible achievement of a group of young men and that is it. March Madness represents collective hard work and determination in pursuit of a goal, and that’s what is Not, is Kobe better than Jordan, or how will 3 championships impact LeBron’s legacy? Not having to deal with these types of legacy or “Mount Rushmore” talks—that are incessantly discussed on shows like First Take—after March Madness is refreshing.
March Madness is special and a cherished tradition that is distinct in the landscape of American sports, and to make a long story short I am going to enjoy every last second of it.