Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Sanity of March Madness


There is no universal agreement, but only competing claims to universality, one of which is our own.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1994)

We were just talking past each other.
Millions Of Us (in theological and political conversations)

In 1939, with the US unemployment rate at 17% and the national debt doubled what it was 6 years previous, the legendary University of Kansas baskeball coach Phog Allen proposed an 8-team NCAA Basketball Tournament to calm the nerves of a nation with a display of cut-throat competition on the court. The simple format has evolved into a 68-team colossus called March Madness, which commences on Selection Sunday with an introduction of the 4 regional brackets and culminates with the Final Four in Houston, Texas.

Sports, of course, has many appealing features, allowing fans to participate vicariously with their favorite teams and players, forming an emotional bond that soothes the pain, anxiety and lack of intimacy in our lives. It is the great substitute for war, allowing rivals to go at each other, head-to-head, without actually killing each other and it has a strong tendency to bring races and ethnicities together under the banner of winning and glory for the team (perhaps this is why sports, arguably, has been more successful than families, governments and faith communities at overcoming racial bigotry). And when it comes to March Madness, it is the only NCAA tournament that funnels every cent away from the NCAA to the schools and conferences who participate, giving more athletes, especially African-Americans from impoverished situations, to compete and graduate (NCAA basketball players graduate at higher rates than non-athletes, but there is a still a HUGE disparity between white and black players).

But over the next 24 hours, just watch how basketball fans, analysts and coaches talk about the chances of "making it" to the tournament. There is an agreed-upon "formula" for what it takes to get to the tournament, including (but certainly not limited to) win-loss record, strength of schedule and the magical RPI (Rated Performance Index). Basketball afficionados make cases for teams "on the bubble" (who did not win an automatic birth by winning their conference tournament) as they debate over who gets into the NCAA tournament, but they agree on the elements of the debate.

Listening to this dialogue, one gets the impression of a coherent narrative that governs predictable disagreement over a few teams who either meet or do not meet the criteria. Although there will be a team or two (think Illinois last year or San Diego State in 2009) that arguably "gets robbed," the whole process has become such an finely tuned combination of art and science that there's a name for it: bracketology. In fact, Joe Lunardi, an executive at St Joseph's University, is now a consistent presence on ESPN as the expert on NCAA tournament brackets and has daily updates on his bracket of 68 (he only missed one last year).

What is so illuminating about all this is how utterly different NCAA basketball analysis is from the current climate of theological and political dialogue. These conversations about the most important things in life can be frustrating and aggravating largely becaue they break down before they even begin. There is not an agreed upon set of criteria to guide our leaders and those of us they represent. If we do not have rules for engagement then we cannot even agree on what to disagree on. According to Alisdair MacIntyre (in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?), the key is the telos, or goal, of what it means to be a Christian (to go to heaven and ensure that others go also? to love God and neighbor? to participate in the divine? to sacrifice our self-interest for the interest of others?) and what it means to make meaningful public policy (to follow the Constitution, as if it was self-evidently read? to allow those at the top to thrive so that their wealth "trickles down" to the rest of us? to protect and support the middle class? to give the lower-class more opportunity? for the common good? for individual rights?).

MacIntyre claims that all facts and rationality are tradition-constituted. Our outcomes are sharped by the communities we participate with. This is why college basketball players, coaches, analysts and fans can engage with each other and follow a debate to the end no matter how polarizing or self-interested the conversation partners are. On top of that, there is an amazing amount of humility and critical thinking involved with the most passionate and interested fans. I continue to hear UCLA alum lament about Coach Howland's lack of offensive imagination and independence, while the Kansas faithful whine about how we just don't defend like we did back on '08. And, I suspect, that this humility largely stems from the fact that all of us will have to look at the scoreboard at the end of every game (and the scoreboard never lies).

Yet we rarely hear this kind of introspection from Republicans and Democrats, Fox News junkies and NPR listeners, Evangelical Christians and Mainline Liberals. I suspect that this has everything to do with the lack of narrative coherence among these groups. Because we are formed by different political and religious traditions we have been trained to ask different questions from the start, not to mention that there are invisible "interests" that benefit from those pre-determined questions. Because we belong to different traditions, we have different rules for our rational discussions and we have different criteria to judge ourselves on whether we are being faithful to the Bible or the Constitution. And, at the end of the day, there is not a scoreboard to decide which teams (traditions) are most effective...just 24-hour spin to make the Bible and the Constitution say whatever each team wants it to say. As a result, conversation partners from different traditions talk past each other and conclude the discussion far more frustrated and polarized than when we started.

The way forward is not to quit inter-faith, inter-denominational, bi-partisan dialogue and swim in the riptides of cynacism, apathy and relativism. The solution is not to divert complexity and confusion by clinging to certainty and comfort through ESPN Sportscenter, but to covenant with each other as we participate in a venture of listening to and understanding each other. This will take creativity, intentionality, time and trust. This underrated practice infuses us with more empathy, humility and wisdom. It acknowledges that God is present in every conversation and has been known to speak truth to us through the most suprising people (2 Chronicles 35:21). During this March Madness season, we desperately need set-aside spaces for this kind of sensitive discussion...preferably with a cold beverage and a filled-out bracket.

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