Sunday, March 23, 2014

The One Class Reunion Where Nobody Looks Any Older

Last night was almost perfect. I had a beer, a sandwich, and was clicking merrily between two, then three NCAA tournament games. But in this sports coma nirvana, there was a faint, small cloud of remaining consciousness.

"For this to be really perfect," what was left of my mind piped up, "I need to having this meal with a bunch of my fellow mugs, in a very noisy bar surrounded by other groups of mugs. And me and my my group should all be about 25 years old."

Thanks to the uncanny ability of CBS and Turner Sports to synchronize TV timeouts across a continent, my thought was given bursts of time to expand. It is the root, I believe, of why there's so much rooting during the tournament for a sport which outside of some very limited precincts (Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina) is an afterthought among sports fans in most places, and a poor number two to college football even in those locales where college sports rules the roost.

It's not the only reason. There's handicapping for one. If Warren Buffett says something is worth a billion bucks, who's not going to pay attention? As the NFL has proved to its inordinate wealth, Americans are almost as fond of the one-and-done format as they are of, well, wealth. There's also the calendar. What else happens in sports in March?

But I believe my wistful wish for eternal mug youth is at the heart of why what is fortunately less often called the Dance punches above its weight in U.S. sports consciousness. The tournament is when those most of those who watch it go Back to School, which is capitalized because they do so in the Rodney Dangerfield movie sense of the phrase.

College is not a universal American experience, but it is a widely shared one. Even if no one outside the 68 schools involved gave a damn, if you add up all their current students, families and friends then add alumni and their families and friends, you're starting to reach a big slice of the citizenry. The total population with some connection to college is many times larger than that.

Again, not universally but for most folks, college is a pleasurable experience recalled with fondness. For some poor souls, it's their fondest memory of all. Even young people like remembering pleasant experiences. For the middle-aged and older, it can be the only hobby you have if you're not careful.

Through some mysterious kink of social psychology, the NCAA Tournament brings out the sophomore inside millions of Americans. Watching games between teams composed of unknown players, some representing previous unknown institutions of higher learning makes it possible to revert to the practices of youth, especially male youth. I haven't been in a sports bar since 2006, I think. What on earth would make me long for it? It sure as hell wasn't the Buffalo Wild Wings commercials.

Here's where I think the calendar combines with nostalgia. The tournament is held in late March and early April -- spring break time. Spring break is one of the most fondly held memories of college. Even students who never went to some beach to get blitzed and burnt wish they had.

Grown-ups don't get spring break, even though we need it much more than those pesky kids. This doubtless is a very good thing for society, especially for Florida police forces. So the NCAA tournament has become substitute spring break. Those too old or tied-down for carousing let fly their Dionysian side by streaming first-round games on the smartphone when they should be working. It may not be much of an impression of carefree rebellious youth, but it's something.

Nobody ever went to Milwaukee or Spokane on spring break. Except yesterday, when millions of people watched arenas there on TV to do so.

When I was an actual youth of proper mug age, I sometimes wondered what America would be like when we as a society reached maturity. Then I realized that would never happen. For four weeks in March and April, that makes it more fun to live here.


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