It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
March Madness is ubiquitous. Your favorite website is certainly running a bracket right now, pitting everything from beers to rock bands against each other in an easily digestible, engagement-driven format.
There is a certain magic inherent to March if you grew up in a community built around a college town like I did. There are dozens of small cities like Syracuse scattered around America — places like Lawrence, Lexington, Storrs, and East Lansing — where college hoops is king. Kids grow up dreaming of being Melo, Embiid, Wall, Kemba, or Draymond. College football, often as a result of the climate and pitiful performances, is relegated to a second-tier status that will never be understood in cities like Austin and Tuscaloosa.
I lived about 15 minutes outside of Syracuse in one of the city’s many sprawling suburbs. Few, if any, of my teachers graduated from Syracuse University. Enrollment at Syracuse among seniors was often a distant third to the local community college and whichever SUNY (New York state universities) was hot that year.
Nevertheless, every March, without fail, academic life essentially ground to a halt if Syracuse played a day game during its conference tournament, and paused again a week later if the Orange were scheduled during the day for the first round of the bracket. One could easily gauge the coolness of a Fayetteville-Manlius teacher by how accepting they were of their students watching a Cuse game; the teachers with the most student street cred used their teacher login to override the web filter on the CBS Sports website and played the Syracuse game live for their class.
Despite the incredibly lenient attitude Central New York faculty take toward distracted students for a week in March, my passion for the event led me to push the envelope on more than one occasion.
When I was in eighth grade, before smartphones were commonplace, ESPN offered a score texts feature. Through your ESPN account, users could enable SMS updates for any game they followed. For the first Thursday of March Madness, I set all 16 first-round games as favorites, ensuring I would receive halftime and final scores texted directly to my Pantech Crux throughout the day.
March in eighth grade at Eagle Hill Middle School is also poetry month, for which I was decidedly less enthused. The English department reserved the entire library for two weeks and sent all eighth graders for quiet, supervised poetry composition during their English period. A strict “no phones” policy was in place.
Some of my classmates had early model iPhones, but no one dared openly check their sports apps under the watchful eye of the English teachers and library staff. Owning a dumb phone, however, enabled me to evade initial teacher suspicion, and by making liberal use of the neighboring bathroom I was able to provide constant updates on the scores to my classmates. My English teacher caught on to the results being whispered through bookshelves and promised to confiscate the next iPhone he saw, but my Pantech and I made it to social studies unscathed.
Mr. Bersani, if you ever read this, I apologize. You were a great teacher, but Walt Whitman cannot hold a candle to the feeling of watching CJ McCollum lead tiny Lehigh past mighty Duke.
Of course, March Madness would not be March Madness without bracket pools. From a very young age, my parents made it clear to me that filling out a bracket is the easiest way to demonstrate your intellectual superiority to your loved ones. Long before I was old enough to spell the names of the schools, my dad would print out a bracket, hand me a pencil, and wish me the best of luck in our family pool. The winning bracket hung on our fridge for weeks.
Even my mother, who has grown incredibly disillusioned with organized athletics, lets herself love March Madness. She often entered more than one bracket into my pool with my friends, and frequently contends for the top spot. One of my earliest sports memories is jumping up and down in excitement with her in 2005 as her alma mater, the 13th-seeded Vermont Catamounts, stunned the 4th-seeded Syracuse Orange in overtime.
To this day, the name Sorrentine or the phrase “from the parking lot” still send shivers down the spines of Syracuse Orange fans.
In high school, I realized that if I expanded the bracket pool beyond my own family, I could collect a much larger pot with the winning bracket. I ran my first expanded pool as a sophomore, utilizing Twitter and a friend whose brother was on the varsity basketball team to reach a solid number of students. I charged no fees for running the show and gave the worst place bracket back their money. By senior year, even a few teachers would enter.
A bracket pool in high school, well before some participants had ever held a job or opened a bank account, presented one major problem – how to collect everyone’s $5 entry fee. Venmo was not yet the financial staple it is today, so I opted for a cash buy-in.
Since the bracket is announced on a Sunday and the tournament usually starts on a Thursday, there are only a few days in between to collect entries. This time crunch led to me carrying a few hundred dollars in a crinkled envelope through the halls of my high school. While some may have worried about being robbed, I was worried about a different problem – being suspended.
My mother, by then in her second year teaching at my high school, warned me that some of the supervision aides suspected I was selling drugs. While I certainly was not, this rumor scared me stiff. The year before at my school, a few students had been arrested on for selling weed out of the bathrooms. There was a new school cop and an environment of paranoia among the administration.
I steeled my nerves and decided that if the pursuit of March Madness did not stop for Walt Whitman, it certainly was not going to stop for Ronald Reagan and his war on drugs. I took to loudly and forcefully announcing I was collecting bracket dues in the few minutes before the bell rang in a class, so there could be no misconception from faculty about what I was doing with so much cash. I am still fairly certain my chemistry teacher, who did not exactly love me in the first place, was looking for any opportunity to hand me over to the DEA.
This year, March Madness comes with extra weight behind it. In 2020, for the first time in 80 years, the tournament was canceled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. I was inconsolable.
On the one year anniversary of the pandemic declaration, people were sharing the moment the seriousness of the pandemic set in for them. Donald Trump addressing the nation, cancelled flights, the shutdown of the NBA, or Tom Hanks’ announcement that he had contracted COVID were common examples on Twitter.
For me, reality did not set in until a week later when March Madness failed to appear on my television. Instead of debating the merits of various 12 seeds, I was sliding out of bed at 12 in the afternoon, my classes on hiatus. In place of filling out brackets, I was filling out a request for emergency financial aid from my university, as my on-campus jobs were both shut down.
College basketball ended up as the only major American sport to lose its season to coronavirus. The NBA restarted in the Mickey Mouse bubble in July, and the NHL split into two bubbles around the same time. The MLB squeezed in a shortened season in the late summer and fall. College football pretended for a few weeks it was going to cancel, then ended up playing a slightly shortened season all the way through the playoff. And the NFL, in true American fashion, steamrolled through its season as if nothing had changed.
But for athletes like Sabrina Ionescu, Obi Toppin, and Malachi Flynn, who presided over unprecedented seasons for their schools, there would be no bubble, no shortened season, and no championship. The Florida state senate hilariously awarded the Florida State Seminoles a national championship, but that is as close as the record books will come to a 2020 college basketball champion.
Last year’s cancellation gives extra weight to the 2021 tournament. I will be savoring every tip-off, every buzzer beater, and every blown call by ACC referees. Furthermore, the impending change to allow college athletes to finally profit off their names, images, and likenesses has resolved some of the guilt I felt about enjoying college sports so much.
March Madness generates over $1 billion in revenue for the NCAA and its schools, of which the athletes, who make the whole event possible, have received a total of zero dollars. Thanks to various state legislatures, and possibly the federal government, this exploitation is about to end.
I used a personal day this Friday so I could watch games uninterrupted by Zoom calls and Outlook notifications. I plan to do this for the rest of my life. Maybe one day, I can attend a March Madness game in-person. Until then, I will be frantically redoing my bracket, angrily debating the merits of bubble teams, and rooting for Cinderellas with the same zeal I had in my middle school’s library or my high school’s hallways.