NCAA Tournament view

Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports

Baffoe: The Subtler Reason We Love The NCAA Tournament

The finality of it all draws us in like little else.

Tim Baffoe
March 15, 2018 - 9:12 am

By Tim Baffoe--

(670 The Score) I’m not much for college basketball on the whole, but I’m a sucker for the NCAA Tournament. It’s chaos in a controlled bracket, and it’s the grand illusion that my yearly uneducated guesses will win a pool. But I recently figured out what subtly draws most of us to the whole March Madness experience outside of any specific team loyalties.

Starting Thursday and going until April 2, there will be 63 games of win or go home. There will be 63 times in which a team is no more.That’s what really fascinates us. Sure, the tendency for these games to go down to the wire and involve crazy finishes draw out of us the overt emotion that we can recognize and thus use as an explanation for the tournament addiction. (And without crunching numbers, I’d guess it’s some sort of cognitive bias that makes us incorrectly think the tournament has more of a habit for last-second finishes than regular-season games that we mostly ignore.)

But it’s the subconscious understanding that we’re watching a team facing immediate erasur -- 63 times. The surrender cobras. The towels hiding tears. The raw emotion we consciously think we enjoy most. Yet there’s a subconscious thrill of a final sword thrust in the middle of the arena, be it early in a 1-vs.-16 blowout or jaw-droppingly in a 5-vs.-12 buzzer beater.

There might be no bloodshed, but it’s still something gladiatorial, even if it involves a bigger crowd that showed up to sacrifice themselves for us. Usually it's football that's more apt for the gladiator metaphor, but college hoops had perfected the frenzy of repeated immediate cannibalistic gratification. These players aren’t as faceless as the ones on the gridiron, but even the big names who get to sit at the podium during postgame are just speaking in various ways of saying, “We who are about to die salute you.”

They're out there in various colosseums for relatively no appropriate compensation until a sliver of them is benevolently granted the permission to turn pro. These indentured exist for the thrill of us commoners in the audience and for the pockets of the game’s senators.

The cost of financing the 884 scholarship players in this tournament is five percent of what the NCAA will make off of the tournament itself this year (and that’s with a likely overestimation of the dollar value of a scholarship). 

Notes Alex Kirshner of SB Nation:

At root, there’s no good way to verify how much of the money schools get from the NCAA Tournament goes toward helping athletes across sports. Athletic departments make plenty of bad investments that don’t help players at all. Pick your favorite bad coaching hire! Schools have great freedom over how to spend the money they get.

What we know for certain that the players in the tournament get almost nothing out of its total pot. That’s even if we make the most generous assumptions possible about the value of the few things their schools actually give them.

We know all this, though. The argument about player compensation -- a righteous one -- is years old. Even those of us in the Roman audience who cling to the illusion that college sports is wholesome and good and that the athletes should be grateful for the opportunity are just screaming that stuff to drown out a conscience.

But that fascination with finality -- sudden at that -- swallows our scruples in much the same way the moral dilemmas with other sports don’t cause most of us to give them up. Again, I’m still going to watch and make noises at my television without regard for what the financial value of the “potential reach” is of a 13 seed up by three points with under a minute to go.

Whatever money our pools have riding on this is a factor -- $10 billion collectively (of which the participants get none). But is it more of a motivator than every time we don’t have to draw an X through a school’s name that we’ve written on our brackets? Because there’s thrill in survival, however many of the 63 times we live on until we figure out we've succumbed to mathematics.

The heartbreaking last-second losses give our brains the same effect though, science suggests. British university scientists conducted a study in 2010 on “near misses,” which would include games we as gamblers almost win. 

Per The Economist:

In games where skill does matter, such as football, a near miss like kicking a ball into the goalpost can rightly be associated with almost scoring a goal. So assigning value to an almost-goal makes some sense. But in games of chance, near misses are meaningless. They say nothing about the future likelihood of winning.

Yet that is not the way many people think about it. Dr. Chase and Dr. Clark have found that in normal healthy volunteers, near misses that won participants not a penny still activated parts of the brain associated with monetary wins.

Because they danced with death. And that’s what this Big Dance is really all about on a morbid but nonetheless honest level. The end for someone is near at all times, several times.

The hugs and the net cuttings and “One Shining Moment” that we tell ourselves is really what March is all about? Convenient explainers, but nah. It’s the termination.

And when it happens 63 times in a condensed period and we know it’s coming? Now that's some subconsciously sadistic fun.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.