The real ‘madness’ of March

Duke students wait in line outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017 waiting on the rivalry game with UNC.
Duke students wait in line outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University in Durham, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017 waiting on the rivalry game with UNC. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Let’s be clear: the real ‘madness’ of March isn’t the unpredictable play on the basketball courts of the NCAA Tournament. March Madness — and let’s please note the ableist connotations of this term — is all about fans, fandom, and an obsessional search for meaning in sports spectatorship.

I teach at Duke University. If you know anything about college basketball, then you know it is the epicenter of the ‘madness.’ Duke students literally sleep outside for weeks in a tent city called K-Ville so that they can attend a single game against UNC. Those who don’t wish to spend weeks outside can instead brave a days-long Walk-Up Line that this year (as per an above the fold cover story in the Duke Chronicle) left those in charge of supervising waiting students “either in tears, or visibly shaken by the sheer frustration of the situation and the verbal abuse — sometimes approaching physical abuse — being showered upon them.” Let me add that in the two years I have spent teaching here on the subject of social inequality and sports, the Walk-Up Line issue inspired more spontaneous in-class discussion than literally any other event, including the election of President Donald Trump. Folks, Duke is obsessed with basketball.

It is not alone. Across the United States, fans flock to NCAA Tournament venues to cheer on ‘their’ teams. The tournament is so popular that last year it generated $1 billion of revenue, a figure it will surpass this year.

The truth is that the spectatorial dynamics of NCAA basketball are not unique. In my new book “Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport”, I interviewed fans of professional hockey about their investments in the game. Their answers reveal something about the (il)logic of fandom.

One fan told me: “It’s gonna sound kind of cheesy, but when your team does well, you feel like you do well. ...And, that may be kind of weird, it may be kind of sad, that that’s how you equate happiness in your life, but that’s what I get out of it. ...You feel like you’re invested in the team, like the team is almost a part of you.”

Another put it this way, “The passion I feel when [the team wins], being part of that community, that pride of your team, that’s something I’ve never experienced before.” A third said that fandom “is so much a part of me ... it’s like breathing.” Perhaps most tellingly, a pastor said of his devotion to a hockey team, “So one time, a dismal game on a Saturday night and, going to bed, and I say to my wife, ‘I don’t know if I can preach tomorrow after that game.’ [Laughs] It was a joke, but there was some truth to it in the sense that you live and die at some level with the team.”

This isn’t really about Duke at all then, or even March Madness itself. It has to do with what I would call an over-investment in the meaning and community offered by fandom. Over-investment because the nature of the investment doesn’t really add up. Most fans don’t know players personally, don’t come from the same place or, often, even reside in the same zip code for much of the year. In college sports, especially at a school like Duke, players often spend less than a year on campus and have a very different experience of college life. The leap to investing meaning and identity in a team doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. In fact, it begs the most basic of questions: why do we do it?

The answer is certainly not to be found in individual pathology, whatever March ‘madness’ might imply. If there is a disease, it is at the level of society itself, and it is called capitalism. Capitalism produces profound needs. The need for purpose and meaning beyond money, whether the excessive wealth of the executive or the insufficient funds most of us earn from our labor, and the need for community and connection in a system defined by competition, individualism, and exchange. Sports fandom helps alleviate these needs and thus comes to take on exaggerated significance precisely because it compensates for so much that is denied elsewhere.

As fun as the NCAA Tournament is, we need to start asking for more than fandom can offer. Because, as long as we choose to live for our sports teams, we are consenting to a world governed by the dollar.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University.