Culture

The Secret Reason Over 40 Million Americans Guess the March Madness

Forty million Americans will fill out brackets predicting the winners and losers in the annual NCAA basketball tournament. What’s that tell you about the USA? Hint: It has surprisingly little to do with how we feel about shooting hoops.

Of course, whenever 40 million Americans do anything, that really says something.

Forty million of us use online dating services. No surprise. When was the last time you ran into a married couple who met in a bar? Americans hook up online.

Over 40 million Americans have unpaid medical bills. Well, we kind of suspected the White House was overhyping. Obamacare is just not cutting it.

Forty million Americans still smoke. Guess a lot of us still have a death wish.

And 40 million of us fill out the brackets all the way from the NCAA qualifiers through the Final Four. But why?

We know there are not 40 million die-hard fans of the hardwood. After, only 20 million watched the championship game last year. So what do they have in common with the other half? Answer: the love of competition.

Americans are instinctively competitive. That’s a good survival skill for any nation. Competition is the essence of understanding and prevailing in war.

General George “Blood and Guts” Patton understood Americans. “All real Americans love the sting of battle,” he growled in a motivational speech to the troops during World War II. “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers. … Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” he concluded. “Americans play to win all the time.”

Patton used sports analogies a good deal because they provided an apt metaphor for the essential characteristic of war. Like sport, war is a competition between two determined foes, a contest of action and counteraction that delivers winners and losers—not just points for participating.

Competition is about making choices and applying resources. Because of that, the side with the most resources doesn’t always win.

Americans get that. When pondering the brackets, they realize that just picking the team with the better record or the better statistics doesn’t guarantee a win in any particular match-up, much less a string of victories throughout the tournament. In any game, on any given day, it’s how the players compete that matters. That’s why seasoned bracket pickers typically predict a few upsets in the early David vs Goliath rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Of course when Patton talked about the American warrior, he liked to boast that the play-to-win mentality was why “Americans have not and never will lose a war.” Well, we have lost wars since then. Remember Vietnam? But was that conflict lost because Americans became poor warriors or because American warriors were poorly led?

Americans don’t love war, but they understand you have to compete—and compete well—to win.

When leaders fight wars badly, they start losing the confidence of the American people and they start arguing Americans are sick of war. That’s a lot easier than recognizing and admitting that they are simply bad war leaders.

Americans know the difference between a competitor and someone just going through the motions. That’s the real lesson of March Madness.