The gospel according to March Madness

I love college sports and so do my kids. And as much as we enjoy college football’s bowl season, NCAA basketball’s March Madness is the highlight of our sports viewing year.

But there’s something disturbing about March Madness, because it preaches “another gospel” that is very American and far from the way of Jesus.

So, I invite you to sit back and do a little basketball theology with me.

The NCAA basketball tournament is comprised of 68 of the top basketball teams in the United States, drawing from 351 division 1 teams. In other words, you have to be the best of the best to make the cut. In many cases, only the top team from a particular conference will make it.

Of those initial 68 teams, 8 of them play-in for 4 spots, reducing the number to 64 teams. Those 64 are divided up into 4 regional brackets and each team (in each regional bracket) is assigned a ranking of 1-16. So each of the 4 regions has a #1 team on down to a #16 team. And within each region, 1 is matched with 16, 2 with 15, 3 with 14, and so on. In other words, the whole bracket system is set up so that the best teams play the worst teams, making it easier for the top teams to cruise through their first game or two.

Now, the madness in March Madness takes place over the first few days. By the end of the second day, 64 teams have been whittled down to 32 in this single-elimination tournament. By the fourth day, those 32 are reduced to 16. Not only is this a lot of games being crammed into just a few days, but these are the games where mayhem takes place, as the occasional lower-ranked team will beat the higher-ranked team it’s matched up against. These underdog victories, sometimes featuring buzzer-beater shots at the end of them, are why we spend whole days watching the tournament. They are the thrill, the madness.

But by the end of the second weekend, where the Sweet 16 are reduced to the Elite Eight and then down to the Final Four, we generally end up with the same old thing. Those teams that had pulled off amazing upset victories are gone. And only the top teams remain. Rarely does a team with a ranking lower than 4 in its regional bracket end up in the Final Four. Generally, it’s the 1s and 2s that make it and the wishful thinking of the rest is showed for what it truly was. Unreality.

And here’s the kicker for me. Of the top 68 teams in the country, 67 of them end their season with a loss. Only one team ends its season with a victory. Darwin would be happy, because this is sheer survival-of-the-fittest brutality. Half of the teams go home as losers after their first game. But they are quickly followed by almost all of the rest. There is no grace. There is only the severity of the final score.

But what makes this worse is the teams at the top are generally the same ones from year to year. Yes, there is fluctuation within the top 25, but it’s pretty much a case of the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Teams that do well are able to recruit the top talent in the country which guarantees they’ll remain at the top. And because it’s a sport that can be dominated by a single exceptional player backed up with a well-coached squad, the blue blood schools draw the best and remain the best.

Even as I love immersing myself in March Madness year after year, I find myself struggling with it and with the outlook on life that it imports into my imagination. Because living the gospel is as much as exercise in imagination — how we conceive of the world and of our place within it — as anything else.

Contrary to this “other gospel” of March Madness, the gospel of Jesus Christ is anything but exclusive. Instead of this waving of the possibility of an invite to all 351 schools while actually being about the top 10, the gospel of Jesus comes to the bottom dwellers just as much as to the blue bloods. In fact, it could be argued that Jesus had a greater affinity for the bottom dwellers, spending significant time with “sinners” and tax collectors, those at the bottom of social, economic, and spiritual spectra.

The earliest heresy facing Christianity was gnosticism. Unlike Christianity’s broad-based appeal to every kind of person, gnostic groups were exclusive and elitist. Each gnostic group had its own secret gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”) which was necessary if an initiate wanted to participate in its elitist, insider spirituality. March Madness smacks of this to me. It has its elite coaches and its 5-star players, and only they participate in the second and third weekends of the tournament.

And the fact that 67 of the top 68 teams end their seasons with a loss is the epitome of works righteousness. Only perfection is rewarded. Anything else falls short and those who fall are sent to the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Well, weeping anyway.

Just watch. After the final buzzer of the championship game, the camera will invariably focus in on The Crying Cheerleader whose team has just lost. It happens every year. In fact, as the clock ticks down to the last second, a friend of mine always says, “Here comes my favorite part: The Crying Cheerleader.”

Unlike college football’s bowl season, where almost half of the teams end their season with a win (almost, because of the playoffs), NCAA hoops has no such grace.

Elitism. Perfectionism. This is the American way, not the Jesus way.

Enjoy some great basketball, but be aware of how it may be shaping your imagination for how this world works and how you live in it.