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Saturday, March 27, 2004

The Madness in All of Us
By Jed F. Hamilton
Friday, March 26, 2004

A small group of us were huddled toward the back of the classroom, obsessively poring over complicated sheets of paper filled with names and numbers and lines and charts and hopes. We were bickering excitedly over the contents of these papers, arguing fervently and making the case for our selections. In the background, the teacher droned on about dangling participles, double negatives or some other seemingly inconsequential rule of grammar. She didn’t understand.

“Mr. Hamilton!” shrieked Ms. Eklund. “I told you I didn’t want to have to ask you again. Hand ‘em over. Now!”

Thus endeth the great Shorecrest High School NCAA Basketball Championship Tournament Pool of 1990… or so Ms. Eklund thought. I smiled wryly at my friend Nate as she gathered up our sheets of paper, each one carefully customized after hours, nay days, of research into each and every one of the 64 teams and their chances at winning it all. But we were too smart for Ms. Eklund. We’d done this before, we knew the risks. We’d made copies. And so, the pool lived on; but not until the end of fourth period.

Every spring, like a rite of passage, the National Collegiate Athletic Association stages what is perhaps America’s greatest amateur athletic spectacle, commonly known as March Madness. Sixty four teams, from all corners of the country, are scientifically selected and paired off by a mysterious 13-member commission known as the NCAA Selection Committee. Like clockwork, on the third Thursday of March these teams hit the hardwood to square off against one another in a three-week battle of attrition.

In the first weekend alone there are 48 games played. The tournament field is whittled down from 64 to 16 teams. The format presents a devastating lose-and-go-home scenario, so every game is filled with great anxiety for players and fans alike. For the collegiate athletes who participate in the tournament, it is the most important and gut-wrenching time of their young lives. Ninety nine percent of them won’t go on to play basketball professionally, so this is probably their last chance at athletic glory. And for the fans, it is a time of guaranteed excitement.

It is fair to say that March Madness is truly a national epidemic. Typically, March Madness means a ratings coup for CBS, the network that has owned the rights to the contest for 22 years. This year was no different, as the first weekend drew 11 million viewers and vaulted CBS to the top of the mid-March Nielsen ratings once again.

Terra Lycos, an Internet search firm, reported this week that “March Madness” held the top ranking in its weekly most-searched rankings, blowing amateur porn star Paris Hilton out of the #1 spot by more than double the searches. Every year, come March, this is the case, and the primary reason for the top ranking can be found in the annual ritual of “office pools.”

Office pool is a generic term for the number of amateur, and therefore illegal, gambling contests centered on the NCAA tournament that take place in offices, schools and retirement homes every year. According to Gambling Magazine, the FBI has estimated that more than $2.5 billion is bet illegally in office pools across the country every year; that’s in addition to the $80 million legitimately wagered in Nevada.

March Madness has certainly affected my life. I’ve been captive to its spell since I first attended a Final Four, the moniker given to the last weekend of the tournament when only four teams remain, at the now-exploded Kingdome in Seattle in 1989. I can remember at least two years in which I feigned illness to stay home from school to enjoy those first two days of tournament coverage. This tradition would follow me into adulthood as I’ve called in sick to work on numerous occasions in recent years for the very same reason. It seems silly I know, but it’s like religion, and no employer complains when workers stumble in late after attending Ash Wednesday services.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in my unhealthy obsession with March Madness. A study released two weeks ago by Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimated that the NCAA Tournament costs employers $1.4 billion in lost productivity for the time people spend at work comparing brackets, checking scores and talking about teams.

On the Tuesday before tournament action was to begin this year I realized I was not enrolled in any office pools, illegal or otherwise. Frantically, I called my friend Bryan in Seattle to ask him if he was participating in any: “Dude, of course. I’m in three. At least.” I knew I could count on Bryan.

Growing up in Seattle I spent my early spring afternoons in friend’s basements glued to each and every second of every heart-stopping game. These days, my tournament-watching ritual finds me in New York City, typically in a bar with friends, glued to each and every second of every heart-stopping game. Things have changed, but not much.

With 16 teams in action on the first Friday this year, my friend Richard and I wandered into a packed sports bar in Murray Hill to enjoy the festivities. It seemed as though every team had a contingent of fans to cheer them on. Nearest the giant screen, a group of rowdy Boston College grads shouted for their team to “Wake up!” In a corner booth, a group of young female fans from the Universtiy of Wisconsin, properly adorned in Badger gear, stare at the multiple screens apprehensively as their Badgers eke out a win over Richmond. In another corner, four recent grads from Duke University share a pitcher and a plate of nachos as they watch their team breeze past Alabama St. At the bar, a woman sports her “Gettin’ Lucky in Kentucky” shirt to show support for her UK Wildcats.

It is the upsets that make this annual ritual so much fun. Every year, a smaller, overmatched underdog of a school, like this year’s University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers, rises up and shocks the world by knocking off a perennial Goliath like Kentucky. This is what makes March Madness so special, and so much fun to watch. The Southern Illinois University Salukis. The University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos. The Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. Every year, at least one of these types of teams plays the role of David.

Things change in this world all the time. But like clockwork, come spring, I know I’ll have the University of California-Irvine Anteaters to cheer on. Go Anteaters.

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