STENDAHL: Consider the bracket

Max Stendahl

In no sport other than college basketball has a simple diagram come to represent – and perhaps even transcend – the game itself.

Not even baseball’s classic scorecard can boast as cultish a following as the NCAA tournament bracket, the ubiquitous icon of March Madness.

Aesthetically simple, yet able to capture the essence of do-or-die competition, the bracket is a universal object of worship. It has even spawned a cottage industry -“bracketology”: a scientific method of predicting the makeup and seeding of the tournament field before it is announced.

For the bracketologist, the anxiety can be overwhelming. The favorite may fail, and the underdog might just as soon validate our hopes as vanquish them. Inevitably, those millions of brackets, once regarded with something akin to religious devotion, end up crumpled in the trash.

Yet, every March, the tradition continues.

But beyond a love for basketball, how does one explain our obsession with brackets? Considering the bracket in a more philosophical light, one finds there is a method to the madness.

John Carvalho, chair of the philosophy department at Villanova, has taught whole courses on the philosophy of sports. He finds the subject of brackets particularly intriguing. Brackets, he believes, tell us something about human nature.

“I think the general idea of the bracket is that it makes sense of something that’s potentially not intelligible,” he says. “The bracket is a very satisfying field to look at. It sorts information for you very efficiently, and I think we like that.”

Carvalho compares the format of the bracket to aesthetic patterns in music and art. “If you’re listening to a piece of music, what you enjoy about it is when you hear a pattern repeated,” he says. “If you’re looking at a painting, you see things recurring, and it’s more satisfying because you can pick out that form. I think the bracket is a very simple form, and so it’s accessible to a very wide population.”

Besides simplicity, Carvalho says, the bracket is inherently democratic – everyone can participate, regardless of their level of expertise. It also encourages our natural tendency to predict outcomes: “With brackets, you just speculate about what might be the case. Our minds love to do that.”

Brackets, after all, do not begin and end with college hoops. They are a cultural phenomenon, applied to the most arbitrary of topics to satisfy our voracious appetite for picking winners. ESPN, the birthplace of bracketology, recently published brackets determining the so-called champions of “Meat” and “Cereal” competitions. In the finals, respectively, standing rib roast topped bacon and Cheerios nipped Frosted Flakes.

Meanwhile, CREDO Action, the progressive news and opinion site, offers a “Bracket of Evil” in which voter-participants can determine whether “Rush Limbaugh is a bigger jerk than Bill O’Reilly.”

Still, the basketball bracket remains the most beloved, says John Doody, another Villanova professor with expertise in sports philosophy. “There’s something about the way in which the bracket of 64 sets up a six-round, single-elimination,” he says. “There’s a mathematical purity to it. You understand how it’s going to be divisible by two, and it doesn’t take any kind of acumen or sports brilliance to see the way that it will all narrow down.”

Doody believes that bracketology, though, is far from a science. “It makes meteorology look like Newtonian science,” he says. “Like something completely predictable.”

Predictable, it most certainly is not.

And as for the madness?

Carvalho perhaps sums it up best: “I wonder whether March Madness would be so mad, or whether it would be so compelling, if we didn’t have this way of following it. Graduate students in philosophy are writing dissertations on being and becoming in Heidegger, and they’re doing brackets: ‘OK, I know I have to understand the ontology of being in Heidegger, but later for that. Right now, my bracket is in danger.'”


Max Stendahl is a junior English and political science major from Ipswich, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected]