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march away from madness
when bracketology goes wrong
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I don't care about sports, except once a year for a few weeks, when I become dangerously overinvested in men's college basketball. I research every team in the tournament, from Siena to St. Joe's, the Hilltoppers to the Zags. I make my picks, obsess over my bracket, glue my ear to the local sports radio station. (Note: local Philly sports radio doesn't actually broadcast the tournament but does comment on it nonstop, with a strikingly frequent use of the word "fazool.") Over a small contribution to a certain pool, I will trash-talk my friends with profanity so extreme and out-of-character I'd be ashamed to use it any other time of year.

I am March Madness personified.

So it doesn't surprise me at all that every year, more and more non-sports coverage is devoted to The Bracketology of Things That Don't Belong In Brackets. The tournament's exciting. And wildly popular. So of course people would try to capitalize on it, arranging all sorts of things in brackets that don't belong in brackets, like beers and local landmarks and, of all things, Fug.

There are a few different ways to tackle non-sports March Madness. All of them share the tourney's format: 64 things competing, arrayed into Regions (which generally make about as much sense as the Regions of the tourney itself), with one of each pair eliminated through a round of 32, 16 ("sweet"), 8 ("elite"), 4 ("final"), and a championship at the end of 2, with a single winner declared.

Sometimes the competition depends on a public vote, as with Fug Madness, where the Fug Girls picked 65 (yes, there was a play-in) celebrities with a history of ugly, offensive, and downright entertaining fashion choices.

Then there's the expert-panel method, as with the Washington Post's Beer Madness, where all the pairing and voting and winning and losing have been done ahead of time, and the winners are gradually revealed in rounds, with the "champion" beer unveiled about a month after the whole thing goes down.

There are brackets of "Lost" characters. Of Philadelphia restaurants. And literally countless other Things That Don't Belong in Brackets, in brackets.

I'm not saying these sorts of competitions don't provide some amusement. I'd rather have a world with Fug Madness than without, if only because I laugh out loud at the "regions" of Fug: Madonna, Charo, Cher, and Bjork. (And oh, that delightful, disembodied Bjork head. Gets me every time.)

But honestly, they're all missing the point. It isn't the choice between two things that we love about Madness. It's the possibility that things could go either way. To relate it to the Beer Madness example, it isn't whether you, personally, think Chimay is a better beer than Corona, though it is. There are days and places (Cinco de Mayo party, Tex-Mex restaurant, and/or beach) where a Corona is better than a Chimay, just like West Virginia's basketball team isn't really better than Duke's, but one day in March they beat them nonetheless.

All you need to know is this: it is both boring and historic that this year, all the #1 seeds made it to the Final Four. Boring, because... boring. Historic, because it's the first time it's ever happened. The best teams in America have a record of not beating the not-best teams in America, for this one month every spring. (And in the days leading up to it, which is why the FoxSports site, in listing the strengths and weaknesses of each team, listed conference champ Georgia's weakness as "playing basketball.")

March Madness isn't about who's better. It isn't about eliminating everybody except the one who comes out on top by means of reason, or logic, or decisions. There are no choices.

There is only basketball.

One game at a time.

And the knowledge that however things turn out, there's always next year.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


can a hilltopper uproot a sycamore?
the strange universality of march madness
by jael mchenry
topic: sports
published: 4.3.01


jason gilmore
4.4.08 @ 11:06a

I'm still laughing that Fox Sports said that about Georgia. It's almost a consolation for how grossly I underestimated Memphis in my bracket.

russ carr
4.4.08 @ 11:24a

"There is only basketball."

And swearing. LOTS of swearing.

adam kraemer
4.4.08 @ 2:38p

I know this is slightly off-topic, but my favorite Philly sports radio moment in years occurred this past Thanksgiving weekend when the 6-5 Eagles were gearing up to play the Patriots. Listening to the radio guys try to stay positive was wonderful.

"Well, I think the Eagles can win if McNabb fully recovers from his injuries and they quickly draft new wide receivers. What they have to do is successfully blitz Brady on every single play and they've got a chance."

jeffrey walker
4.4.08 @ 3:47p

"One game at a time."

I mean, they do have like 4 games running simultaneously in the opening rounds. Just sayin'.

jael mchenry
4.4.08 @ 4:11p

Walker, I thought about that, but justified that each game is played individually, even if they overlap a lot in the first round.

That's definitely my favorite time of the tournament. Nonstop basketball! Never a dull moment! (Constant swearing!)

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