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A fine distraction.


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We’re all looking forward to some great games in the weeks ahead, but even the excitement of March basketball doesn’t compare with the excitement of electing the next President of the United States! – e-mail from the McCain campaign announcing the bracket feature on his campaign website.

Actually, it is a lot more exciting. And while it is true that you swap one set of clichés for another, and one group of hyperventilating commentators for another, the whole thing is over in less than three weeks and there aren’t any recounts and no lawyers are involved.

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Some experts (and what would we do without them) have estimated that the distraction of the NCAA tournament and the bracket pools it spawns cost the economy more than $3 billion in lost time, wages, and bungled work. The figure is specious but even if it weren’t, it seems like a fair price. One suspects that this year, the folks who work for hedge funds, investment banks, and the like are happy to be distracted by March Madness in order to shut out the real world. That, or they are not paying attention at all, on the theory that there are considerably bigger fish to fry. Perhaps the employees of Bear Stearns are running bracket pools where everybody throws in what is left of their retirement accounts.

The plain fact is that the tournament is a fine distraction that arrives, even in a non-election year, at a time when most of us could dearly use one. This year the tournament is a blessing. Something to take the mind off Bernanke and the market and a lot more appealing than a national discussion about race. How much more fun is it to listen to Bob Knight discuss Duke’s chances than to be smooth-talked by Ed Rendell on why the Florida vote should count?

The best part, for many of us, is the possibility of an upset in a close game. Rasmussen can’t do a poll before the Arizona/West Virginia game, say, and basically take the suspense out of it. We knew that Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich weren’t going anywhere but Belmont (Belmont?) came within an eyelash of beating mighty Duke. In the irrational way the mind of the fan works, that would have been not merely a thrilling upset, it would have somehow validated something. Call it payback for all of Duke University’s sins of the last couple of years.

Silly, for sure. But you grope for some rational basis for a rooting interest. Unless, that is, you just whimsically penciled in the “Bruins” on your bracket card.

And, mercifully, the games are conclusive. No professional spinner will be explaining tomorrow how the final score of some game was not a true reflection of his team’s real strength. You lose and you go home, unlike John Edwards, who is still in the game.

College basketball has, in short, come up with a near-perfect vehicle for driving interest in the sport to a sublimely hysterical pitch. You don’t get more exasperated the longer the thing goes on. To the contrary. And the system seems to work, in some mystical way, to a fitting conclusion that leaves even the losers satisfied.

That first round Duke/Belmont game shouldn’t have been close. But it was a tight, elegantly played contest that could have gone either way and was decided when Duke’s Gerald Henderson drove the length of the floor and maneuvered his way to the basket for a layup. It was a purely athletic play, utterly spontaneous, and irresistible to anyone who hasn’t just shut his mind to the joy and beauty of sports.

Now, Duke gets to do it again on Saturday. Whoever wins the tournament will have been through at least one near-death game like that. It is a tournament that the champion will have survived as much as won. The fan is permitted, then, to believe that something like destiny is in play and that the victor, in some intangible way, deserves it.

Since there are no primaries for the next couple of weeks, it might be a good idea for all three of the presidential candidates who are still alive in their tournament, to suspend operations until after the basketball is wrapped up. Tell the voters — and especially the political junkies, operatives, and pundits — to take the next two-plus weeks off. Just chill and enjoy the games. Let the vile humors settle and the raw passions subside. Have some friends over, fire up the big flat-panel set, and instead of watching a pointless argument about who lied first and most about NAFTA, tune into a game. Crack some beers and get into it. The other will wait and for now, we can use some relief.

The Tarheels, by the way, are going all the way.

Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.



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