It’s about 7:45 PM on March 18, First-Round Thursday, perhaps America’s finest day. I was assisting my boss in grading from 10 AM to 6:30 PM, so I’m eating leftover pizza from lunch and running through the basketball from this afternoon. TiVo is wonderful, as I get to jump right to the good parts of each game, the last four minutes. I watched Maryland escape, Southern Illinois come oh-so-close, and now VCU is 1 ahead of Wake with 1:45 left. It’s a little tricky, having to avoid the scores beforehand, but this is totally the way to go. Then I can roll right through commercials and clock malfunctions. Ack, VCU doesn’t deserve the win with their terrible clock management; Wake made their free throws and won to advance in the Northeast regional, or East Rutherford, or whatever they’re calling it. Corporate naming is only a matter of time.
The main topic, though, is why I called this America’s finest day.
Right now, I’m watching Duke about to tip off against Alabama State in the Cialis Bracket. Duke’s a number 1 seed for the sixth time out of the last 7 seasons, and Alabama State’s been in the tourney once before. It’s interesting to hear fan reaction. Well, except for the shameful quarter of seats that are empty. Plus, there are some Devil fans, who cheer politely when Duke scores. That happens a lot, as Duke leads 26-14 halfway through the first half, when the Chicago station switches over to Michigan State-Nevada in the Microsoft sub-regional. I’d rather see Princeton, myself, which when working well is beautiful to watch.
Onto to Duke and the crowd. The secret of America, and perhaps its best feature, is this: Nobody Roots for Duke. Every other person in that arena, except maybe the officials, wants Alabama State to do well. They scream when a Hornet basket goes in, or Duke loses the ball, or the referees ignore the seemingly blatant thuggery of the bigger, stronger team in white jerseys. There’s a lot of that, as Duke is ahead by 21 at the half. On the other hand, Princeton leads Texas by 3, though they fall behind to start the second half. Two for 18 behind the arc will win no games. Duke wins by 35 and Princeton loses by 17. Oh well. Nevada beats a Big Ten team, not really an upset, and now I get to watch DePaul. It’s an ugly game, which in the last four minutes becomes a free throw contest, and neither team can shoot them. At one point in overtime, free throw counts are 9 of 19 and 8 of 22. Both teams play so poorly that they get another five minutes of pain, and I’m back to live action. Ow. Depaul manages to not lose, though if I were commissioner I would disqualify both of them and advance somebody exciting like VCU. Back to our story.
Why does America root for the underdog? It really makes no sense, particularly in America, where joining the bandwagon is seemingly mandatory, and a lot of awards, like for movies and music, are chosen on ticket sales and popularity. We like the strong; we like being strong, and expect things to bend to our will. It’s not just “extremists”, like foreigners call our President. Even the more cosmopolitian of this nation prefer Starbucks, American English, automatic transmission, and the power of green Benjamins.
Nevertheless, there’s tension between power and the dislike of it. Everyone wants to be the underdog, and support that concept. Sometimes, this might be considered pernicious, like hope in the alternate Pandora’s Box. Who was it, Horatio Alger perhaps, that wrote the stories of orphans who seemingly always wound up with Upper East Side apartments, solely because of “hard work”? That misconception is pernicious. Don’t get me wrong; class movement in the United States today is much more flexible than most other places. But there’s always help in stories of self achievement. Look at me. I am trailer trash, and now seriously talk about building an eight figure net worth. There are so many helpers along the way, though; the doctor who properly diagosed my leg, the speech therapist that taught me proper enunciation, my parents as schoolteachers who bought a computer instead of a vacation, many teachers, the blind preacher who interviewed me for Harvard, and so forth. If that’s why people root for Liberty, a false sense of liberty, that’s not good.
Instead, I like to think of the preferential option for the poor, the belief that all are equal under the Lord, and thus the weaker need assistance from the strong. It’s dangerous to ascribe providential qualities to sports, particularly the NCAA. Perhaps I go too far, which wouldn’t be the first or last time. But where else do enough people look? Fox News? Rooting for the weak, the Vermonts and Utahs of the world, certainly doesn’t go far enough, but I’ll take any step. Maybe it’s the spark that brings people closer to something elegantly stated by Oscar Romero in September 1979:
“Let us take seriously the cause of the poor as though it were our own – indeed, as what it really is, the cause of Jesus Christ, who on the final judgment day will call to salvation those who treated the poor with faith in him: Whatever you did to one of these poor ones – the neglected, blind, lame, deaf, mute – you did to me.”