Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Evils of Bracketology

Since I wrote last week's post arguing for an NCAA Reunion Tournament, I've thought of another reason such an event would serve the public interest. It would be even harder to fill out a bracket for this event than it already is for the regular tournament. Why would this be favorable? Because I think filling out brackets is indicative of a primitive human drive that is born of a pessimistic outlook on life.

ESPN's Jay Bilas successfully predicted the four teams in this year's Final Four--not only at the start of the tournament, but way back before the season even started. However, when given the chance by ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike" to gloat, he surprised me by downplaying his accomplishment. "I think that predicting games is one of the silliest things we do [in TV sports]," he told them. "Look at the Super Bowl. Nobody picked the Giants. " He intimated that it would be of greater service to viewers to tell them areas of interest to focus on and crucial match-ups to watch for, rather than haughtily making oracular pronouncements. Yet no major sporting event passes without almost every paid commentator or columnist feeling compelled, as part of their job, to prognosticate. And oddly, people demand that they do so. Back when I worked in sports radio, I was rather surprised and amused when somebody whom I rarely interacted with actively sought me out before a Packer play-off game in order to discern my opinion on who would win. I doubt the individual was satisfied by my refusal to commit to a clear answer (though I suspect he was even more dissatisfied with the outcome of a certain 4th and 26 play in that game).

Although I suppose gamblers have a tangible reason for wanting insider knowledge, why can't the casual fan simply "enjoy the ride" and revel in the heightened tension that uncertainty can provide? Although it has become a cliche, it is true that sports is the ultimate in reality television. The unscripted nature of sporting events, and the seemingly infinite possibilities of outcomes, are what makes them compelling viewing. Why do we seek to undermine the very thing that gives us the most pleasure?

Perhaps our answer can be found by studying our roots. One doesn't need an advanced degree in historical anthropology to know how obsessed ancient and even medieval cultures were with knowing the future. The concept of the oracle or augur is consistently found across diverse cultures throughout history. The practice of fortune telling, though not dead, has certainly waned in recent centuries, and one needn't think too hard to discern the cause. With the prevailing worldviews of Christianity and skeptical secularism both eschewing divination, the practice became doomed to decline. Yet just because the practice is removed doesn't mean that the impulse that gave rise to the practice in the first place is snuffed out. We still have a drive to know.

Turning a cliche on its head, I'm fascinated by the concept that bad news can be better than no news. I literally can't imagine what it must be like for a family that has a missing loved one. Yet I never quite know what to make of interviews in which family members say that the hardest part of the ordeal is "not knowing." I don't quite know what to make of the Biblical story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor, in which the Israelite king went to great lengths to get a foretelling of a battle, and then accepts a harsh prediction without incident (despite having a well documented temper). Likewise, what to make of two Babylonian rulers lavishing praise and honors on Daniel for easing their uncertainties, even though it involved predicting their tragic downfalls?

It is my hope that we reach a point and time when we are optimistic enough to view a state of uncertainty as a favorable and even exciting state to be in. But I make no predictions.


Blogger Falcon1209 said...

If I were ever told what my "fate" was, I would do everything in my power to change it if it didn't appeal to me. Then again, seeing the movie premonition would have me thinking otherwise. Basically, her attempts to undo the future she had foreseen were actually the cause of it.

I'm just not to keen on the idea that I'm not in control of my own life. Maybe people don't like the responsibility of choice?

1:06 AM  

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