The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which is affectionately known as “March Madness” is rapidly approaching and it causes me an opportunity to reflect upon how much Americans love competition. Competition not just for the spoils of victory, but competition simply for the sake of competing and the sometimes slim, if any, chance at winning.
We Americans love to root for the underdog, the hopeless souls whose likelihood of success seems akin to the likelihood of snow occurring on the equator. The 16th seed running the tables and dominating the tournament. The hapless heroes from many of Hollywood’s best sellers have shown this, from classics such as Rocky and Rudy to more recent offerings such as We are Marshall and The Pursuit of Happyness. We love to root for those who have the cards stacked against them. Even with traditionally villainous characters such as The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, we can’t help but to hope for him to wipe out the heads of the other four families.
And so leads me to this reflection on gambling and risk, and the never-ending desire to hit it big, or simply just to compete. I have a friend who loves betting on football and adores his new tactical flashlight amazon. He doesn’t bet on baseball or hockey or horse racing, but when it comes to football, he’s all in. From the three fantasy leagues he participates in, to the numerous weekly parlay cards, he can’t get enough of betting on football. For the past two football seasons I have kept a spreadsheet showing how much he bets each week, and tracking his ups and downs, and not once has he finished the season ahead. And he knows it full well, yet he continues to bet. I asked him why he does this, knowing that more than likely he is going to lose, and he says, “Because it’s fun”. Is losing fun? Losing, in and of itself, probably isn’t much fun. The joy and anticipation of possibility winning big, or simply the act of competing, the chance of being king of the fantasy league, for him far outweighs the reality that in the long run, he’s going to lose. On a weekly basis, if he does hit a parlay card, next week he is guaranteed to turn around and bet it all again. For him it’s not about getting rich, it’s about the thrill of uncertainty, the hope and anticipation and anxiety that builds throughout the week, culminating every Sunday afternoon.
My life is not that dissimilar. Though I don’t get into the fantasy football leagues or the parlay cards, I do enjoy filling out the brackets for the Final Four, and competing on just about everything else under the sun. There are games that I know I am absolutely horrible at, such as “Super Mario Kart” on the Nintendo 64. It’s an older game, but my girlfriend loves it, and so we would play and she would beat me nine times out of ten. She could have beaten me blindfolded, yet I continued to play knowing I would more than likely lose. I know defeat is imminent, I know my best chance at victory is to not play at all, yet I continue to forge on ahead simply because of the thrill of competition, and it fascinates me.
I competed in various sports throughout high school, but competition didn’t begin to consume me until I entered college. In college my roommates and I would turn just about anything into a competition. We didn’t play for money, as most of us didn’t have very much of it to wager. We competed simply to compete. We would compete at beer pong, dice, dominoes, “James Bond 007: Nightfire” and “Tiger Wood’s PGA Tour” on the PlayStation 2. You name it, we played it, and more often than not, as college students are known to do, we turned it into a drinking game. We even turned the television show “Cops” into a drinking game. Because I am sure most of you have never considered “Cops” to be a drinking game, I’ll take a moment here to explain the rules. At the beginning of the show each of us would select an ethnicity and an offense. As one can imagine, the city in which that day’s episode was filmed would influence our decision. So, I might select white and drunk driving and one of my roommates might select Hispanic and drugs. And then we would watch the show to see if our predictions were correct. Whoever ended up incorrect had to drink, and if it was a split decision, meaning we each got one right and one wrong, then we both had to drink. If neither one of us got anything correct, then again, we both drank. It was admittedly sophomoric and inconsiderate, but at the time it was fun and a way for us to temporarily ignore the studying and homework that awaited us.
As the years go by the beat still goes on. Though I no longer drink to “Cops” I continue to enjoy the thrill of competition. Like most American families, as a child my family and I would occasionally take summer vacations which included long car rides. In the backseat my brother and I would play games such as “I Spy”, “Memory” and the “Alphabet Game”. The days of road trips with my family are behind me, but now when my girlfriend and I travel long distances, usually on our way to or home from extended family functions, we play a game that has no official title, but it allows me to keep my brain from tiring and keeps me from drifting off to sleep, and consequently off of the road, as I drive. I’ll tell her, “Pick a letter”. And she might pick the letter “A”. And so we begin alternately listing bands or musical artists that either begin with the letter “A”, or have “A” as the first letter in their first or last names, until one of us gives up. “Abba”. “Alien Ant Farm”. “Allman Brothers”. “Aretha Franklin”. “Aaron Tippin”. “Art Garfunkel”. And so on. It’s silly, but for some reason we enjoy it.
This is in no way meant to be a definitive exploration of American competitive practices. But as I’ve said before, I’m fascinated by our inherent need to compete, our passion for risk, and our desire to attempt to win, even if the mathematical odds of victory are more than fifty percent against us. Maybe that is one of the reasons why America is the most powerful nation on Earth; even when there is seemingly no hope, when the chips are stacked against us, we can’t help but try to “Win one for the Gipper”.