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Are We Mad? March Madness and the Level Playing Field

By Mary Marczak, Director — Urban Family Development and Evaluation

Each year, Brad Rugg, program director in youth development, and I co-manage the Coffey Hall March Madness Pool (translation: the Coffey Hall NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament sports lottery). For three weeks in March, we have a blast chatting across centers about how our teams are doing, how a Cinderella team beat a major university (translation: typically a little school thought to have near zero chance of beating a university with lots of money for athletics), or the feel-good stories told about the young players and their families that the TV networks add to games to keep the interest of casual fans (translation: those who only watch college basketball during March Madness).

(Translation: The day when the NCAA College basketball tournament participants are ranked and announced.)

This year, without North Dakota State University and the Ohio State University (translation: Trish Olson’s alma maters) to distract her, FD’s own director of programs led the Coffey Hall pool all the way up to the last few minutes of the championship game!

The reason that this tournament is nicknamed March Madness may give us some food for thought.

March Madness describes how topsy-turvy the tournament gets each year. In this 64-team tournament with a single elimination format (translation: one-loss and you go home), teams that should win often lose and some tiny college that no one has heard of with a pittance of funds for athletics comes out of nowhere and starts beating big universities.

Furthermore, with nearly infinite combinations, it can literally be maddening to fill out your bracket at the beginning of the tournament. According to Forbes, the odds of filling out a perfect bracket are 1 in 9.2 quintillion (translation: a 9 with 18 digits following it). It is said that you have a better chance of becoming the President of the United States AND getting hit by lightning in the same day than to fill out a perfect bracket — which is why it has never happened. And in nearly 80 years of the tournament, only one year had a Final Four with all #1 seeded teams!

Yet each year, millions of people across the country complete these brackets and diligently track them so they can gleefully jab at family, friends, and co-workers that their bracket is doing better. Why?

Here’s a key reason: The madness described above is a great equalizer. Everyone has a chance to win, no matter your knowledge, your life experiences (e.g., where you went to school), or your ability to do intricate statistics. Experts who make a living tracking college basketball could have a busted bracket (translation: the teams you pick to go far into the tournament loses in the first two rounds) well before someone who hasn’t watched a single game all season! Believe me, as a sports fanatic, it is quite humbling to lose to an octopus who had more correct picks than me (yes, this is the same octopus that picked the World Cup winner in soccer).

The fact is, when people feel like they have a chance no matter their background, and there is somewhat of a level playing field even if others start with greater advantages (translation: more skills, expertise, and knowledge), that’s when people will play. They will join in the fun.

Our center is keenly aware of the difference this kind of equity makes. This explains the craziness that our program teams go through to make adaptations to our programs. We try to level the playing field so no matter what the life experience or knowledge base of the people we serve, Minnesotans have a legitimate chance of learning (and winning at life). And maybe have some fun along the way.

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