By: Kaitlin Hamer
Another day, another game, and you are dancing with anticipation of what is to come. You put on your favorite team’s t-shirt that you have had for too many years to count, and head towards the basement. As you trample down the stairs, you try as hard as you can not to spill your beer, chips or salsa, even though it would not be the first time. The excitement is just too much for you to handle; after all March is your favorite month. With bracket in one hand, remote in the other, you are ready to ride the emotional roller coaster that is a game of college basketball during March Madness. Anxiety sets in as the players approach the center of the court ready for the jump ball. This is the year your team will pull off the upset, you tell yourself over and over again. Screw the rankings! The underdog will prevail. You take a giant swig of your Bud Light and grip the sides of your lounge chair as the referee walks to the center of the court. The whistle blows… and your team misses the jump, but you still sit on the edge of your chair hoping that they will be the underdog story of the tournament this year. College basketball brings you back down memory lane to your days in the stands with your face painted, screaming at the top of your lungs. It’s March Madness, and it’s truly madness!
Since the beginnings of the NCAA March Madness Tournament that is seen today in the mid-1980s, both players and fans alike sit down at their televisions in the evenings hoping for another month of fantastic college basketball. All of the teams that qualify for the tournament square off and fight till the bitter end where one team is declared superior among the rest. Each team is given a ranking at the beginning of the tournament, and that ranking determines where they will fall in the March madness bracket, and in turn who they will play first. These rankings are made by a committee, and based on region and overall performance that year, but in the grand scheme of the game, are not the determining factor as to who will win the tournament in the end. One of the main reasons college basketball, and more specifically this tournament, is such an appealing sport to the masses is for the very reason that it’s anyone’s game, and fans get the opportunity to try and pick the needle out of the hay stack and guess who will win! The bracket system creates a comradery around teams, and turns friends into enemies. Whether you are a number one seed or a number eleven seed, everyone has a shot to bring their A game and take the coveted national championship.
The archetype of rooting for the underdog has been around since the folk tale of David and Goliath took root in society. In this story, David, a young, weak boy takes on Goliath, a large, muscular giant and defeats him in battle against all odds. Throughout the story, the writer framed the overall tale towards rooting for David to win, even though it seems impossible. The March Madness tournament is framed in the same manner. In 2012, Lehigh’s head coach Brett Reed commented on the David and Goliath talent difference between a 2nd seed and a 15th seed stating that any team in the David position needed to suspend their disbelief to take the win.
Reed stated “I told our guys we really needed to suspend disbelief. The only thing that really mattered was that we had confidence and belief in ourselves.”
The practice of blocking out the haters can sometimes allow David to defeat Goliath, just like in the folk tale.
In 2006, Jim Larranaga and the 11th seed George Mason Patriots made a run that would live on as one of the top ten best upsets in the tournament to date. The team made it all the way to the elite 8, defeating teams like the University of Connecticut, who have historically carried a high ranking and were a number 1 seed that year. In 2011 when never before ranked Virginia Commonwealth University, also 11th seed, made it all the way to the Final Four, fans far and wide rallied around the team encouraging their major successes. They had done what seemed impossible. Upsetting Kansas, a number 1 ranked team, to make their way to one of the most coveted positions in the tournament, was the true definition of a Cinderella story. The Patriot’s and Rams were David, and they took down all the Goliath’s in their path, and got a lot of media coverage and support for it. School’s themselves also take advantage of the little guy complex that is being an underdog and the media attention it garners. With the invention of twitter, people are not really all that excited about the basketball, more the reaction to the unexpected victories, and the constant positive, encouraging media coverage to follow.
So why do we root for the underdog? Studies have shown that generally, teams labelled as the underdog are described as harder working, and often times more motivated. There is this idea called “underdogma” where often those who have less power are framed as more virtuous or more noble and those were more power are framed as power hungry or aggressive; therefore, when a team who has been ranked in a lower position overcomes all odds to take down a higher ranked team, the general public swarms around them hoping for a positive outcome for those who they deem as positive, hardworking individuals.
In the game of basketball, there are no guaranteed wins. Individual players can come together in times of intensity and rise above their rankings and pull off the underdog, Cinderella stories that are so beloved. That being said, March Madness is more than just a set of games. The whole tournament centers around which fan can make the most correct predictions, and end up with the winningest bracket. The frame of the underdog as the team to pull for influences how people fill out their brackets. Some will use the rankings and pick the team with the higher ranking to win, while others will shake it up and chose an underdog to take the win. There is no science behind making correct predictions, but the common theme of pulling for the underdog does have a strong impact on how these brackets are filled out for some.
Now that you’ve chosen to pull for the underdog, it’s time to sit back, and enjoy your panic attack throughout the rest of the game. Pulling for the underdog is not the safest of decisions, but it reflects the want for the impossible to be possible.