Curator's Note

 This clip from ESPN’s pre-NCAA tournament hype demonstrates the cultural power of the Men’s NCAA tournament bracket.  Each March brings waves of articles concerned with the potential damage of the games to economic productivity. At the same time, the bracket creates economies of gaming and spectacle around the tournament. In 2010, CBS reached a 14 year, $11 billion dollar deal with the NCAA to broadcast the tournament. And, according to some studies, around 35 million Americans participated in a college basketball office pool this year.These economies are based upon the unpaid labor of collegiate athletes. President Obama’s appearance is a tacit endorsement of the capitalization on this labor by the NCAA, its corporate partners, and fans.

The bracket packages the uncertainty of athletic competition into an aesthetic structure that seems to provide order and predictability. As “March Madness” suggests, unpredictability is the dominant brand of men’s college basketball. The bracket exploits this randomness to create a sense that the tournament is inherently “fair” (in contrast to the perceived illegitimacy of college football’s Bowl Championship Series). At the same time, the bracket offers fans an opportunity to experience the pleasures of risk and speculation by filling out the form as if it were a puzzle. Whether applying knowledge of Kentucky’s interior defense or advancing teams with cat mascots, fans can create a solution according to their own peculiar logic.

This structure is useful for the NCAA’s media partners. ESPN employs a resident “bracketologist,” who offers expert speculation on who will or will not make the “dance.” The schematic of the “bracket” is effective  televisuality. Media experts dissect the image and engage in speculation and argument over the results of matchups, even those that have yet to be determined. This infotainment is packaged and presented to fan-consumers.

The bracket is also a spatial metaphor. The “regional” structure and diversity of institutions included map the tournament onto a figure of the nation. Here, President Obama appears in the role of fan, pundit, and speculator, and displays a casual expertise in one of the nation's favorite pasttimes. His regret over selecting the same Final Four as ESPN's Andy Katz, who acts as his prompter here, indicates a reflexive awareness of competition. President Obama is a figurehead, but his submission lends a democratic air to the arbitrariness of the game.


This makes me wonder about the cognitive dissonance that brackets bring to our sense of geography, about what the nature of that particular chaos is, precisely. What does it mean--what does it do, for instance--when residents of Las Vegas find themselves in the South? That is, when Las Vegas is said to be in the South. I guess that one could say, following your reading of the bracket as an alternative economy that the geographical détournement of the bracket forces travel, thus hotels, gas, more money for Subway chains everywhere. But the psychic distrubance seems harder to figure.

 Rob, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on what, if anything, might be done about student athlete labor. I guess my question would be: is it labor? We so often construct it as such because there are others profiting from the game, but does that necessarily mean playing the game is a type of work? These athletes already benefit from free promotion, advertising, equipment, tuition, tutoring services, etc. With non-student athletes often subsidizing athletic programs through student fees, I wonder if they are not equally exploited, if not more so? As athletic departments continue to grow and expand with state of the art facilities in order to attract the most talented amateur athletes in the country, are university's not paying these students in a different way?

There is clearly a case to be made that student-athletes are compensated for their play. Indeed, the NCAA makes this case as the justification for its existence and control over these sports. As for whether this compensation is "fair," that is debatable (unless you're a student athlete), but consider the incredible risk of injury that college football players run during every game and practice. And of course, consider the sheer volume of time, effort, and energy demanded by top level college athletics. There is very little that is amateur about the culture of big-time college athletics--football, men's basketball, and even women's hoops, to an extent--except for the fact that the athletes don't get paid a salary. The US is the only country to promote college sports as spectacle, other than a few elite competitions like the annual boat race between Oxford and Cambridge, which was just protested.  The concept of "amateur" sports derives in the United States derives from a Victorian ethos meant to exclude working-class competitors. 

 As Brian and Todd point out, the culture of athletics dominates the lives of athletes, inside and outside the locker room, on and off the field. The secret  and aggressive sexual  play that is developed to promote team intimacy finds its counterpoint in a spectacular sexuality outside the game, as college "stars" live the erotic lives of celebrities. There is very little about that which corresponds to any culture of amateurism. University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team just won the national title, openly mocks the very notion of a student-athlete, and has admitted that his goal is to train his "students" to become professionals. The majority of them stay only one year in college, and then only because they have to due to NBA restrictions. 

Adam, you raise an interesting problem in relation to Brian's post. If collegiate sports benefit the humanities by placing them on the map, academics are, ostensibly at least, also part of their compensation. Their benefits are also their product. Play is a paradoxical place of privilege. It is work that is simultaneously valued, spectacularly, and devalued.

I've also been really confused by the regional breakdown of the NCCA brackets, especially considering part of the ranking is based on putting good teams in their "true" region so fans can attend. The end result is you have Final Four match ups like Kentucky and Louisville representing certain national regions, even though they are mere miles from each other. With everything branded in the NCCA tournament like Brian alludes too (the official hotel, the official sandwhich place, the official soft drink, the official insurance company, the official LADDER), how long before the brackets themselves are sponsored? As the announcers hype for each sponsor, they can give a whopping $1000 to the school's general scholarship fund (but never mention how much they paid for their placement). Branding of brackets would make more sense and follow the logic of the NCAA than cardinal directions that are ignored. Here are some suggestions: the Coca Cola bracket, the Allstate bracket, the US Army bracket, and the Nike bracket.

I just wanted to thank all the participants for a great week of discussion! Hope to read and talk with you all soon.

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