Every march, following the final buzzer of the Big Ten Championship game, a group of about a dozen men gather in a room to determine the fate of 68 men’s college basketball teams in the form of the most exciting, over-analyzed, and impossible to solve puzzles in the history of man: the NCAA Tournament Bracket. This is no easy task, as the selection committee must juggle an infinite number of factors in an effort to make all the potential match-ups as fair as possible based on each team’s performance in the regular season, but each year this group of men manages to produce an incredibly balanced, fair bracket in a minimal amount of time. Sure, there are always some teams that complain about having too low of a seed or being snubbed from the tournament altogether, but these complaints are usually just background noise amidst the millions of analysts and fans praising the bracket’s construction and drooling over the commencement of the tournament.
Until this year, I had no idea how the selection process even worked–mainly, I guess, because it works so well that no controversy ever brought the process front and center. Apparently, the committee is composed of a fairly even split between members of the “power 6” conferences and the “lower” conferences. This surprised me, especially in light of the massive realignment that college athletics are currently undergoing; lately, conferences (especially in football) seem to be becoming obsessed with increasing the exposure of their member schools, as exposure is pretty much directly proportional to money. This is why it’s so shocking that the selection committee is so evenly split between power and lower conferences–with such a clear “partisan” split of the committee, the selection process should be totally bogged down by each respective division trying to force more teams from their level into the tournament in an effort to increase the exposure of those types of schools. In this way, it’s easy to draw parallels between the selection committee and the US congress, as both are experiencing an ever-increasing partisan split yet still are forced to cooperate in providing a service to the American people.
Despite these similarities, there is one crucial difference: the selection committee actually works. While approval ratings for Congress continue to drop to levels lower than they’ve ever been, the NCAA bracket is consistently regarded as one of the only “perfect” things in sports, a testament both to its quality of composition and quickness of release. So what’s different? Obviously, with Congress, the stakes of cooperating are much higher–but if anything, that should force them to compromise even more, as not getting the US budget released on time would be exponentially more catastrophic than skipping the NCAA tournament for a year (tragic as that would be) because the upper and lower conferences couldn’t settle on a final field of 68. The only real difference I can think of is the accountability factor. In Congress, representatives must fight for their job on an almost consistent basis, whereas the selection committee (which is composed mainly of school athletic directors) doesn’t have to worry about their selections directly affecting their job status. This means that senators and representatives must place the wants of their direct constituents above the best interest of the United States in order to protect their livelihood whereas members of the selection committee (whose votes are also anonymous) can fight for the best interest of college basketball without having to worry about the potential of their selection ruining their careers.
In short, the selection committee can make difficult, necessary decisions in a short amount of time that ultimately leads to a better result for college basketball because they don’t have to answer to the people they displease. Obviously, this would sound scary if it were applied to Congress as well, but I think we’re all at the point where we would try anything to change what’s happening in Washington now. Senators and representatives are puppets held up by their party leaders and are over-scrutinized about every decision they make by an increasingly polarized constituency. How do we get that to change? Anonymous voting? Longer terms in office? The abolition of parties? Did New Mexico really deserve a 3 seed? Will Michigan beat VCU? If you’re interested in either March Madness or politics let me know what you think about these ideas…or just attach your bracket and we can compare.