Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
It’s March Madness time
in the USA
for basketball fans
college basketball fans
men’s college basketball fans
whose brackets haven’t been so thoroughly busted that they’ve given up watching the tournament
It’s March Madness time for some folks. (If you’re not one of those folks, I hope you enjoy this rhetorical analysis and genre play anyway.)
And that means it’s time for basketball fans and friends of fans to fill out their tournament brackets. Or, since I’m posting this just before the last weekend of the Final Four games, it’s time for almost all of us fans to mourn our busted brackets and scowl at the non-fan friends whose brackets are still intact after selecting their winners according to the cutest uniforms or funniest mascots.
Yep, expertise doesn’t win in this tournament. As Josh Jackson, a player for my school, the University of Kansas (KU), said
“Every team that makes a run in this tournament gets one crappy game where stuff just doesn’t go well for them”
and then that team loses, in spite of the stats and the odds and all the expert analysis.
You might have guessed—Saturday KU had its one crappy game. It lost its game to Oregon in the Elite Eight, a game KU should have won, according to the stats and the experts.
So much for brackets and expertise.
Out of my mourning for my busted bracket—and even more from my regret that the KU Seniors Landon Lucas, Frank Mason, and Tyler Self end their college careers in such a sad way—I thought I’d comment on the whole madness of tournament brackets. I'm leaving out the many, many, many other genres that surround the bracket--the selection shows on TV, stats, RPIs, online discussion groups, betting odds, and even busted bracket brackets. Not to mention the games themselves, the play-by-plays, color commentary, interviews, halftime shows, pregame shows, chants, cheers, and booing.
But sticking to the bracket . . .
Tournament brackets—a genre created by expertise and some marketing and a genre busted by talent and some luck.
Here’s a little rhetorical analysis from someone who’s relatively expert in rhetoric but not at all expert in tournament brackets.
What’s the purpose of the tournament bracket? Who’s its audience? What else from the context shapes or constrains it? And what does that tell us about this genre and about this game?
For the NCAA and its expert selection committee, the bracket
The bracket creates the games that teams will play, if they keep winning, and the games that we fans will watch, if the NCAA has done a good job of matching up teams we want to watch play.
Because there are other purposes to the bracket—like creating match-ups fans want to watch in order to increase TV ratings and NCAA revenues. Oh of course those aren’t stated purposes and I’m sure the tournament Selection Committee is fair and honest. But the procedures for creating the bracket specify things like not having teams play each other too soon if they’re in the same conference. Could that be partly to make more exciting match-ups with potential audiences from more parts of the country and wider markets? The procedures specify avoiding rematches of various kinds. Could that be partly because it’s generally more exciting to watch teams play that haven’t played each other before? That’s the great opportunity of the tournament, having great teams play each other who wouldn’t ordinarily meet. The primary purpose of the bracket may not be to market games to audiences, but some of those bracketing procedures sure don’t hurt TV ratings or NCAA revenues.
The primary audience already shows up in the purpose—the teams who will play, including players and coaches and their staffs, but also the fans. Then come all the secondary users of the bracket—ticket sellers, TV programmers, alumni associations and others who arrange watch parties or have their work lives affected by the tournament.
What’s the purpose of the tournament bracket for fans? It’s different enough that it might even be a different genre from the bracket created by the NCAA.
For basketball fans, the bracket takes on another purpose once it’s published: it gives the fans and their friends a fun game to play, guessing which team will win each game. (It also gives bookies a way to make money and offices a way to bond and avoid work, but that’s another topic.) When someone asks, “Do you have your bracket yet?” they aren’t wondering if you’ve seen the NCAA match-ups or pulled a copy of it out of the newspaper. They’re asking if you’ve created your own version of it, with your picks for each game. A different genre with a different purpose, audience, and context.
And it's all for fun. Or as James Corden says after spending the day picking his own bracket and then discovering he's not allowed to win money for it, "People do this for fun? Fill out a bracket? Insane."
And it's for competition. Just as the players compete on the court and the teams compete in the NCAA bracket, we fans can compete through our brackets in groups. My own sensational group on Yahoo Fantasy sports now has me in the middle of the pack, but even the top of our group has pitifully few points and I don’t stand a chance of winning (somehow I don’t think Kansas and Arizona are going to play in the championship game). Many upsets in the tournament this year, with lots of lower seeded teams beating higher ranked teams, leading to upsets in our fan brackets. So many upsets that our brackets have morphed into another version of the genre—busted brackets.
Maybe busted brackets are a different genre altogether, cuz they’re created by player talent and lots of luck instead of expertise and marketing. Just as any team can have a crappy game, as Jackson so eloquently put it, any team can have a spectacular game. In any given game any given team can beat any other team. Players with some talent play the games of their lives. Future NBA picks suddenly turn cold. The basket grows a lid on one end of the court. The refs call questionable fouls on one team’s players. The Nike 5-point advantage knocks out an Adidas-sponsored team—ok, not really that last one, but it’s tempting to find someone else to blame when your team loses unexpectedly, and blaming a bias toward the TV sponsor is as good a scapegoat as any.
Or maybe busted brackets are just a common variation on the bracket genre, a consequence of the genre rather than a violation of it. After all, busted brackets don’t have a different purpose—teams don’t bust brackets in order to make other fans sad or to mess up the match-up of the best games. Busted brackets don’t have a different audience—the same fans who fill out the brackets with great hope curse their busted brackets with frustration. And the contexts and constraints are the same, the online groups, office pools, and individual choices based on knowledge or whim. Busted brackets are so common that one wag DGiggity added a definition to Urban Dictionary for SBBD, Seasonal Busted Bracket Depression: "The annual depression that occurs mid-March and follows a #9 seed or lower trouncing a #4 or higher seed thereby destroying your NCAA bracket."
So if your bracket, like mine, is busted, remember that the bracket is a game—whether the game of the selection committee or the office pool.
And remember that it’s all a game, competitive though it might be—a game played by young men doing their best and trying their hardest, bringing enormous amounts of talent and energy and, yes, expertise and luck for our entertainment. If they can stand the pain of losing that last game--and every team but one loses that last game--then we can stand the pain of our busted bracket losing the office pool.
There are dark sides to it all, of course, and player exploitation, gambling addictions, gender discrimination, and even sometimes crimes and assault are potential results of the competitive nature of that game. I’d also be happy to trade big-time college athletics for big-time academic funding.
But today, when “my” team has just been upset and I’m seeing the sadness of senior players I’ve watched for four years, I’m just a fan with a busted bracket. Or really, today, I’m just a fan.