A reflection by Chris Smith, Youth Ministry Coordinator
March Madness is here! Experts predict 70 million NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament brackets will be filled out this year. Employers are estimated to lose over $13 billion in productivity from employees' time filling out brackets and watching games; 11% of the U.S. workforce will call in sick at least one day to watch tournament basketball games!
What’s all the excitement about? I think it’s because of the unpredictability of the upsets, thrilling endings, Cinderella stories, and unlikely heroes who captivate our imagination. There are so many upsets and unpredictable results that the odds of perfectly picking all of the winners correctly in the 68 team tournament are 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (that’s 1 in 9.2 quintillion). Americans will bet just over $10 billion this year (legally and illegally) as they try to correctly predict the most winning teams in various bracket contests.
I am convinced that if all of the games played out as predicted (by team ranking), the tournament wouldn’t be half as fun, fans wouldn’t fill out brackets, and fewer people would tune into the games if they already knew who would win. Even though on average only 12 of 67 games (about 18%) are upsets, it’s just enough to create an annual springtime obsession for the 268 million viewers who watch at least one March Madness NCAA tournament basketball game.
If only we had the same acceptance and even excitement for upsets in our lives, for things that don’t go as planned, for unexpected results, for surprising people who step up and make a difference and change the course of what is expected, we may find ourselves more rooted in joy.
If we could view our lives with the joy and excitement the way many look at the NCAA tournament, we might find:
● Last second, unexpected changes that derail us from our plans are like last second buzzer beaters that change the outcome of a game.
● Tried and true people who sometimes let us down or disappoint us are like All-Americans who miss most of their shots or have an off game.
● People we have never heard of who extend kindness or generosity to us are like those no-name players many have never heard of who have the game of their life and save the day for their team.
● The coworker, neighbor, or classmate who succeeds despite overwhelming odds is like the player we learn about whose integrity, work ethic, and courage inspires us to cheer them on to victory, even if they are not on our favorite team.
We are called to root ourselves in joy this Lent, to move beyond the bracket to deepen our faith through championing the cause of the underdog, learning from losing, and seeing the value in submitting to God’s will instead of asserting our own.
Champion the underdog
Sure, it’s fun to cheer for the underdog- those teams who barely made the tournament, as long as they don’t upset our team, but our faith calls us to work for those who live in the margins in society. Our entire faith is inspired by Jesus’ example of loving the underdog, sticking up for them, fighting for them and with them, and standing with them as they struggle for even the most basic of rights. Catholic social teaching encourages us to respect the dignity of all human life, to care for the poor, to protect our environment, to promote the dignity of work and the worker, to protect the rights of our brothers and sisters both here and across the world, and to support the call to active participation in family and community life.
Just as the NCAA tournament doesn’t just exist for the perennial powerhouse teams, we must work together to ensure our institutions work to meet the needs of all people. If we can cheer for the underdog in a basketball tournament, we can certainly find it within ourselves to work for justice for the underdogs in our communities.
Learn from losing
Teams lose, brackets get obliterated, and many of us lose interest and choose not to follow the tournament any longer once there isn’t a chance for us to win the bracket contest. Fortunately, life doesn’t allow us to quit when we lose - life goes on and we must go on, too. Some of life’s most meaningful moments, the moments that define and shape us, are the moments when life is the toughest. Our faith calls us to learn from our failures and mistakes, to roll with the upsets, and continue to grow into who God made us to be. If everything worked out in our life as we wanted (if we won every single game), how would we grow, how would we learn to totally depend on God? Seeing the NCAA tournament with new eyes, we can learn more from losing than we can from winning.
God’s will, not our will
When our tournament predictions are wrong and our favorite team loses, we have to admit that we don’t know everything and that we don’t control everything. We have to humble ourselves to admit that we are not God and that by submitting to his will, we are opening ourselves up to a life lived for him. The sooner we realize that God is in charge, not us, we open ourselves up to a life that is far more meaningful and exciting than we could possibly imagine. The unpredictability of the NCAA tournament reminds us that by giving God a more prominent place in our lives, we open ourselves up to the mysteries and wonders of a life lived in service to God and others.
This March, we are challenged to enter into the Madness and transform a men’s basketball tournament into an opportunity to root ourselves in joy by championing the underdog, learning from losing, and nurturing humility by submitting to God’s will.