You may notice or be afflicted this month by a seasonal virus that can cause a peculiar form of temporary madness. Victims are known to congregate in large numbers, wearing colorful outfits and in some cases face paint, and fall into brief periods of sustained frenzy. When it ends, some are left in a state of euphoria, others in despair.
We're talking of course about March Madness, a contagion whose regional epicenter currently is the EnergySolutions Arena in downtown Salt Lake City. Thanks to the NCAA, thousands of people will suffer from extreme distraction over a period that may last weeks.
Experts who study such things say the outbreak will significantly reduce the productivity of the labor force, much like a wave of influenza. The outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray and Christmas, estimates that three million Americans will spend more than three hours at their workplaces watching telecasts of basketball games during just the first two days of the tournament. It will cost American industry about $130 million in lost productivity.
Even so, not many office managers are expected to order a crackdown on television use. Rather, they're more likely to fill out bracket sheets and hover near a TV of their own.
What is it about the annual college basketball tournament that's, well, so infectious?
Maybe it's because there's something about it that resonates as uniquely and charmingly American. Just as any child can grow up to be president, any humble, small-campus school can rise up and slay opponents from much larger institutions with more prominent athletic heritages. What could be more egalitarian than a team from a small Jesuit college in western Washington marching into the regionals in Salt Lake City as the No. 1 seed in the entire 64-team field?
You don't see that in football or in many other iterations of institutional competition.
It speaks to the part of our heritage that champions the underdog. Every year it seems, a low-seeded upstart somehow takes down a highly favored squad, often in dramatic fashion, as a winning shot reaches the net just as the game clock expires. These are moments that cause sportscasters to unleash their most exuberant adjectives. They are moments we relish regardless of team allegiance because we like to remember that sometimes, even the little guy can do big things.
So we welcome this festival of spring that celebrates the virtue of the fair playing field. There is no shame in being its captive. Psychologists will tell you occasional distraction from mundane matters is a healthy thing.
As the comedian Robin Williams said, "You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it."