23 March 2009

Method behind the Madness

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Division One Men's Basketball Tournament has emerged over the past twenty years as the most prominent multi-day sporting event in the United States. Granted, it lacks the all-consuming focus of a single day as does the preeminent athletic competition, the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, in some aspects, it draws in spectators in ways that the Super Bowl and other highly popular events lack.

First of all, the appeal of the underdog comes to the forefront. How is it that thousands of fans attending the games and millions watching them on television become enamored with lowly seeded teams from relatively unknown programs? Invariably, perhaps instinctively, those not affiliated with the higher seeded squad openly cheer for the underdog, the level of support inversely commensurate with how far down in the seedings the underdog is located. Does this appeal find its roots in the era when Americans were a fledgling yet disrespected country facing dominant and disdaining super-powers? Can this phenomenon be traced to a Judeo-Christian influence of the tale of the protagonist, a perceived hopelessly overmatched David versus the antagonist, an overwhelming favorite Goliath? Is this a manifestation of class warfare leading to antipathy toward the perceived pomposity of perennial powers? Attendees at these venues and public locations where the games can be viewed will commonly hear statements along the lines of this: "I can't stand Blueblood University with its fifteen thousand seat arena and millions of dollars in apparel sales. I hope Podunk State beats those arrogant (expletive)s!"

Secondly, March Madness has morphed into an excuse to dabble in gambling. Bracket pools among co-workers have developed into a tradition on par with the nondescript "holiday" party in December or monthly birthday cakes for employees. People who would only ever enter a casino to partake in the buffets eagerly fill out bracket sheets, even if they rarely, if ever, watch college basketball games during the regular season. Uninterested for most of the season, some Americans suddenly develop an affinity for teams based on curious qualities as "cute mascot", "pretty color scheme" or "location in a loved or detested state".

Additionally, Americans love drama filled immediacy and pressure. The "win or leave" format of the tournament heightens the tension among the players, coaches and fans. The NCAA Tournament can be contrasted with the National Basketball Association's seven games playoff series in which a prohibitively favored team can sleepwalk through three games yet still manage to win the series to advance to the next round. The collegiate squads possess no such luxury. A highly acclaimed team might be unable to focus on a match played at the hour when the players typically have breakfast or are asleep. A dominant, towering center could spend a significant portion of the game on the bench after an early accumulation of fouls. A leading scorer with consistent accuracy might fall into an inexplicable slump. A team of outstanding free throw shooters can fire nothing but bricks and air-balls. With such occurrences, teams with less experience, depth, height and accuracy can and do pull off upsets. These allow the underdogs to advance while the higher seeds ponder what went awry.

Foreigners have frequently stated words to the effect that what Americans do best is overdo everything. The arrangement of the NCAA Tournament lends itself to that stereotype. For the initial days of the tournament, on Thursday and Friday, four sites host four games each. The gluttony of games commences at midday, local time of the venue, and concludes at or near midnight. Even the second round, with half the number of games, extends from noon to well into prime time viewing hours in most of the country. After a respite of three days, concurrent double-headers take place in the evenings of the following Thursday and Friday. Nation-wide twin billings on the next two days determine the Final Four. Of course, a five day lag until the next round happens to allow time for another time-honored American tradition: media overexposure of the participants.

The Madness concludes with one team hoisting a trophy after proving itself as the undisputed national champions. Considering the widespread interest in this playoff among the American people, one might contemplate another mystery: Why is there no similar resolution to the Division 1-A college football season?

06 March 2009

Who is in Charge?

In many nation-states, more than one person is regarded as the leader of a respective country. One person serves as a monarch due to his/her familial relation or elected official with little to no legal power. This figure has merely ceremonial duties such consenting to have his/her image printed on currency and addressing the citizenry on occasions. This figurehead is ascribed as the de jure leader of the country or head of state.

In contrast, a different person has true executive, possibly dictatorial powers. This official assumed office typically by plebiscite although inheritance or violent usurping have occurred and still do in some areas. This leader is considered the head of government, also known as the de facto leader. Just as role can be divided between nominal and effectual leaders, such arrangements exist among those in charge of political parties and movements.

Can someone not holding a political office and has never done so actually dominate a major political party? Perhaps, if this person hosts a talk-show with millions of loyal fans. Additionally, this host/hostess, an opinionated millionaire who openly expresses political opinions and preferences, contributes financially large sums of cash. This celebrity of enormous fame regularly spouts socio-political opinions on the air and invites guests who parrot them. Therefore, the people of the United States of America might rightfully conclude that a media mogul serves as the true leader of one of its two major parties. With that said, the chatter about Oprah Winfrey and her grasp on the reins of power within the Democratic Party should inevitably dissipate.

Media coverage of last week's Conservative Political Action Conference has spawned an overblown controversy regarding who is the leader of the Republican Party.
On this subject, an important distinction must be stated. Michael Steele has been chosen as the de jure leader of the Republican Party. Who is the de facto head of the Republican Party seems less obvious. With the absence of any clearly influential and prominent Republican politician in Congress, the debate will rage among those touting various Senators, members of the House of Representatives, governors and others who have held one or more of those positions in the past in addition to Steele's supporters.

Rush Limbaugh has been widely regarded as the leader of the conservative movement for more than a decade. That role does not necessarily coincide with directing the Republican Party. Although a definitive standard for determining the undisputed chief of conservatism does not exist, Limbaugh has maintained a high-profile among the right-wing of American politics for nearly twenty years. Granted, he has detractors within the various factions on the right; some questioning his consistency and commitment over various positions taken on issues in the past. However, no one since the passing of William F. Buckley has continually and persistently championed conservatism as Rush Limbaugh has done.

Only time will tell if Steele will claim Limbaugh's title or if Limbaugh will continue to hold , in the minds of many, the rank that Steele nominally possesses.

02 March 2009

Modern Oracle?

One of the stars of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference and those CPACs in years past has been Ann Coulter. Though Miss Coulter has carved a prominent niche in the edifice of punditry in the United States, comparisons to feminine forerunners inevitably occur. An observer might compare her to Phyllis Schlafly, the early pioneer of social conservatism. Some people may notice a literary resemblance between Ann Coulter and Ayn Rand, the vocal proponent of unadulterated capitalism, as kindred commentatrices and acclaimed authoresses. Those willing to recollect historically might find some commonality with Saint Joan of Arc: apologetically nationalist, openly supportive of her country's military and devoutly Christian. Another, more ancient woman seems an interesting basis of comparison.

This woman in question received the moniker Pythia after being chosen as the priestess of the Oracle at Delphi. Although numerous women filled the role of the Pythia over the course of several centuries, the all of them conformed to a template before assuming the role. If one delves into the backgrounds of both the Pythia and Ann Coulter, the similarities manifest themselves. The Pythia grew up in a rustic village in Greece; Miss Coulter was raised in a bucolic suburban town in Connecticut. The Pythia adhered to the cult of Apollo, an influential sect in her nation; Miss Coulter practices evangelical Protestant Christianity, a prominent denomination in her country. The priestess dwelled in the warm and humid climate along the slope of Mount Parnassus, overlooking the Pleistos Valley in Greece; the pundit resides in a tropical area, along the Atlantic coast of Florida. A requirement to remain a virgin prohibited the Pythia from being married; inability to choose among exceedingly high number of lovelorn suitors or fear of devastating them by choosing a groom appears to explain her single status. The priestess' pronouncements were motivated by emissions of noxious gases such as methane, ethylene and hydrogen sulphide; the pundit's statements often occur after emissions from obnoxious gasbags such as MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, New York, Times and Washington Post. The priestess uttered mysterious and troublesome predictions that confounded her elite recipients into asking for interpretation by priests; the pundit declares sarcastic and biting observations that affront her elitist targets into seeking consolation from their psychotherapists. If one believes in reincarnation, pondering the possibility that Ann Coulter previously toiled in ancient Greece as prophetess does not seem as totally implausible.

The influence of the Pythia has been established and recorded for posterity's sake. Ann Coulter's contemporary celebrity looms prominently and has grown steadily for more than fifteen years. Whether Ann Coulter's legacy will endure as long as that of the priestess of the Oracle at Delphi remains to be determined.