I won the first bracket pool I ever entered.
That isn’t meant as a statement: if anything, it is the perfect example of the frivolity of predicting March Madness. I was eight or nine years old at the time and by no means yet a college basketball addict. I have no idea who I picked, with only a faint memory of selecting upsets based solely off of the records of the teams (as this was the only info provided on the old-school, pen and paper bracket). Yet, I won the pool consisting of dozens of adults in my Dad’s office, and at that young age, the couple hundred dollars the victory brought me seemed like a windfall that would never be matched again in human history.
And that, ironically, is why every year, when my bracket inevitably busts, it hurts. That’s where I find myself after Tennessee’s last second collapse Thursday night, alongside my beloved Wolverines’ (for those unaware, I grew up a die-hard Michigan fan and got my PhD in Ann Arbor) complete implosion against Texas Tech, officially pulled the plug on a bracket that was already on life support.
As a self-aware adult I’m conscious of how juvenile it is to be so disproportionately frustrated by losing what amounts to a game of chance. And yet, every year, my subconscious overrides my conscious, logical mind, causing me at least one restless night’s sleep. Why is that? I know the loss of the 10-20 dollars, at most, I put on my brackets each year shouldn’t have that affect. Oftentimes, my bracket falls apart around the same time that Duke bows out of the tournament; but then again, the feeling persisted when I came up just short in many of my bracket pools in 2015 despite Duke’s national title. And (as Jay Bilas’ horrendous first weekend bracket from this year shows us, or a literal example from my pool where a friends’ fiancé won the whole thing simply by picking teams with cat-based mascots), I’ve finally come to the mature realization that a failed bracket doesn’t negate my knowledge of the game or my fandom.
Unfortunately I’m a scientist in my day job, so I’m forced to continue searching for an answer, a cause-and-effect, behind this yearly cycle of seemingly-inevitable disappointment. And the answer, I think, comes down to the things that make sports (and more specifically, college athletics), a unique cultural experience: memory, ritual, and community.
Winning the first bracket I ever filled out cost me my sanity for the rest of my life. Embedded in my malleable childhood brain was the joy I felt waking up every morning, watching the ESPN bottom line with my Dad, and highlighting my correct picks (yes, I’m old enough to remember a time before the bracket process went digital), not to mention the extra couple of video games netted from my prize money. So was running home from school during the first round to catch as many games as possible from the couch. And as I grew older, the comradery I felt from this yearly rite with my father was replaced with the teenage rivalry that came with searching for bragging rights in the dorms of Wilson and Wannamaker, as friends and acquaintances alike piled into my dorm room (the blessing and curse of having a TV in the dorm back before streaming was king) to watch every moment of the madness. A different experience and memory to be sure, but one that built upon the importance that the strength of my bracket had deep in my subconscious mind.
You may read this and find solace that you aren’t alone in feeling so disproportionately affected by your bracket’s success each year. You also may read this and judge me silly and childish. Both are equally valid reactions. But I think we can all agree that the yearly ritual of the bracket, playing a game of chance masquerading as a test of your basketball fandom with both your closest friends and those who you might share only the most tenuous connection to, creates a unique sense of community. There’s a reason that rituals of all types persist in every culture. March Madness is an odd one from that historical perspective, to be sure, but it’s a ritual nonetheless, and one that impacts the American psyche just as rituals have humans for millennia.
I wish I could simply laugh when an upset busts my bracket, delete the Tournament Challenge app from my phone, and just enjoy the tournament for its own sake. But I can’t. There’s a mourning period that must be observed, for that is my ritual, my connection back to fond memories of highlighter stained fingertips with my father and playful ribbing with my Duke classmates. And it all started with the indelible memory of winning that first bracket, and the unreasonable expectation it placed in my developing brain that winning was the expectation, not the exception.
And I can’t wait to do it all over again next year, despite knowing the nearly inescapable frustration that comes with the end of March.
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