The great thing about March Madness, the term that refers to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that takes place during, yep, March, is NOT that it replicates or stages or allegorizes life. Sportscasters will sound off again and again about the virtues of The Game’s ability to teach hard work and good character and other supposedly necessary life skills. (In what life? Not sure.)
NO, as Grumpy Cat would say.
March Madness is nothing like life. It’s MADNESS. But it’s a particularly calming type of madness motivated by an obsessive desire for organization, form, risk aversion, and comforting limitations. The highly structured landscape of The Tournament—which I love–is the fakest most sterilized version of a competition ever. FTW! The chaotic world of college sports teams which differ vastly in terms of resources, players, team philosophies, playing style, schedules during the season, and etc. is organized into 64 contender teams in a fell swoop. The choosing of these teams takes at most 35 seconds, from the end of the regular season on one day to the beginning of tournament season on the next. The constitution of the Field of 64 teams (the teams allowed to compete in the tournament) is completely subjective and extremely unfair. This is not my critique; everyone knows this. Sports commentators talk about it endlessly, lamenting the teams that were wrongly overlooked.
In this way, in its many aspirations to fairness that constantly fail, March Madness is like life (not in its utopian vision of the hearty joys of competition, but in its systemic failures). By which I mean March madness is a form of poetry. It’s all about the restrictions of form and the potential for form to be (GAWD PLEASE) broken. There can only be so many special “moments” because the Tournament itself dictates against overleaping its own shape and ethic, against using surprising or unorthodox styles of play, against teams ranked 15 beating teams ranked 2. Dick Vitale, an idiot, will not shut up; and he says the same things over and over and has been doing so for 4,576 years. Dick Vitale is the repeating stanza of The Tournament. The sing-songy part that you cruise through as fast as possible.
I manage the GRUMPY CAT MARCH MADNESS TOURNAMENT, a pool of about 40 friends and acquaintances many (possibly most) of whom do not follow college basketball. Or any sports. In fact, most of the people who play in my pool have never watched a basketball game. They’re thinky people who forgot to learn about the pleasures of the athletic body-spectacle. (I know, sad). Some of them know what’s up though. Not too many. “Strategies” for predicting winners abound. Picking according to the relative awesomeness of team mascots is a favorite. Uniform colors, school names that sound cool, underdogs underdogs underdogs. My brother has picked some community college in Florida to win it all. I don’t even know if that team is in the damn tournament. I like to think of it as the Tournament of the Misfit Elves.
In some ways, then, as I perceive it, I manage the anti-Tournament March Madness Tournament. Which is at the same time the most faithful Tournament because it embraces the risk of gambling just as it should: with no fucking idea what will happen. Just as Grumpy Cat would have it. That is if he ever collaborated with others. Which he does not.
But I don’t do this ironically. I get the absurdity of the Tournament which does not diminish the pleasure it gives me. I love college basketball. I am IN LOVE with it. I would gay marry college basketball in a New York minute. I should specify, though, that–to the chagrin of some of my friends–I follow and love men’s basketball. I’m not a raging sexist; or, if I am, then my raging sexism is not my motivation for watching men’s and not women’s basketball. (It occurs to me that only a raging sexist would write “I am not a raging sexist.”) Women athletes are fantastic. Incredible. But the form inside which they play is so degraded by being structured as a diminished version of the men’s game (ugh) that I can’t watch women’s college basketball without crying for the plight of the relationship between the genders (all of them) and the way the celebrated micro supports the macro when it comes to sexism. Watching the super kickass Skylar Diggins (Notre Dame), for example, execute a beautiful layup to score (Hurrah!) with a basketball 1 inch smaller in diameter than a “regular” (read: men’s) basketball, a ball that is also pressurized in order to be bouncier than the regular (men’s) ball, doesn’t make for a fun viewing experience for me. Every women’s game is a spectacle of a struggle for legitimacy against a system that devalues the players. That is life. I have enough life in my life. I wonder sometimes (as an academic laborer), in this vein, why the standard for tenure for women isn’t ¾ of a book while the tenure standard for men is a whole book. Surely the fundamental differences between men and women require such an adjustment; then we could know, as we do with women’s basketball, that success is measured as almost success. Your prize comes with the condescending nod that you’re a terrific athlete—for a girl.
THAT life and its daily manifestations exhaust me through interpolation in personal and impersonal ways, big and small. Even here at Starbucks where the guy in the baseball hat and motorcycle boots is staring at me right now because, when he asked me why I cut my fingernails so short, I said: “Get the fuck away from me.” Yes that just happened. I wish it was a surprising part of my day. The world in which I DON’T live is a world in which the best teams are always a group of 64, a nice even number, and which is assembled as a group through procedures so ugly they cannot, and will not, be explained. Okay so I do live in that world, too: fortune 500 companies and the U.S. Senate come to mind. But, really, I refuse to accept—in my sports-watching pleasure as I must here at the fucking Starbucks—that men get to play in an arena of fantasy while women play in the smaller arena of tragic realism. I’d rather even the insufferable Charles Bukowski write this story if the other choice is Kate Chopin. Really.
As for The Tournament—the men’s game, I know I know I know–it’s a waiting game. You wait and wait and wait for the seam. The breakdown of form. Something sloppy that runs counter to its own logic. Something—brief, quick—that exceeds or ruptures the absurd structure. If these moments serve as allegory, then the allegory is one in which some weird type of chance escapes the stultifying grid for two seconds thereby reminding us that these moments are possible. The moments ALWAYS come (why do you think they have the song “One Shining Moment” cued up at the ready?), and they’re galvanizing because they defy the conditions of possibility. A team with that small a pool of resources beating a team richer than God is impossible. NOT. A 20-year old dude cannot make a running alley oop basket with a broken leg. OH YES HE CAN. Purportedly heterosexual athlete boys don’t kiss each other on the mouth on television. HELL YES THEY DO. Basketball fans like me would watch 64000 games just to get one of these impossible moments. AND YES THEY SHINE. Shine on you crazy crazy diamond.
Then again, as for life and the life-y-ness of life practices, I like The Grumpy Cat March Madness Tournament because it’s full of weirdos, weirdos very skilled at the work of collaborating with others to determine standards and values while knowing absolutely nothing about anything and yet convinced of their own importance and potential to WIN. Er, well, just like life.
GO DUKE BLUE DEVILS! (EVIL EMPIRE 4-EVAH!)
Mandy Berry: Feels like Mandy Berry today.