In the coming weeks, America will be overcome by “madness”. Throughout the country, sports fans, both casual and hard-core, will focus their attention on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In bars and bakeries, at the dinner table and over phone lines, people catch the madness. Office pools are organized and parties are thrown as television screens everywhere are tuned to "The Big Dance", as teams from Boise to Bloomington, Athens, Georgia to Athens, Ohio and New York to New Mexico compete for the national championship. Over three consecutive weekends, the original field of 68 teams is whittled down to one, crowned NCAA National Champion the Monday evening following Final Four Weekend.
Dubbed “March Madness” for the unpredictable nature of the contests as well as its’ catchy commercial ring, it is the perfect television event. Longer than the Super Bowl’s one day, one game extravaganza, shorter than the three month marathons that are the NBA and NHL playoffs, and more inclusive than the World Series, where only two cities are represented, it has captivated our nation’s televised sports consciousness as no other event. But rather than the unpredictable nature of the games or its’ commercial appeal, the term "March Madness" is appropriate for another reason; everyone is watching it. If everyone is watching, no one is participating. Instead, fans are sitting in front of the television set stuffing themselves with junk food and beer, watching what amounts to a contest between teenagers who are billed as students but are, in reality, paid mercenaries.
March Madness is also significant because it is the best example of the evolution in the way we "participate" in sports. This shift is problematic because our heavy cultural investment in sport is justified largely upon the belief that it promotes a healthy lifestyle. Those who regularly exercise and participate in sports are more likely to live a longer and healthier life. The Greek ideal of sound body, sound mind is, in fact, sound, as medical research on this claim is irrefutable. Unfortunately, March Madness has little to do with this Greek ideal. To the contrary, March Madness encourages behavior that has a negative impact on physical health.
Before televised sports, if a parent wanted to spend a "sporting moment" with their child, they likely would have gone to the backyard and played catch. Today, it is just as likely that such moments will be spent watching one of the hundreds of televised sporting events each week. Despite claims of the positive affect on the health of our populace, organized sport in America has become more about watching elite athletes perform rather than being active yourself; as likely to be associated with lying on the couch with a six-pack of beer than working up a sweat through vigorous exercise. As sport has grown in popularity, more people are sitting idly, watching the athleticism of the few. Television has lured us from the playing fields to the stands thus changing the idea of what it means to “participate” in sports. Rather than being in the middle of the action, we observe from afar. Meanwhile, our nation becomes more obese.
There is however, value in watching sports, the most obvious of which is that it is an escape from the ordinary. Watching sports can also be spiritually exhilarating, drawing us together and making us feel that we are a part of a larger force -- a team. Whether pulling for your city’s professional football team in the Super Bowl or your alma maters’ basketball team in the Final Four, such moments allow us to be a part of something much larger than ourselves and to connect with others.
But there are also significant disadvantages to spectatorship as articulated by James Michener in his 1976 book, Sports in America:
“The disadvantages of mere spectatorship are numerous and compelling. The health of the inactive watcher, whether in a stadium or before a television, suffers. He tends to accumulate tensions that are not discharged. While sitting and watching he contributes nothing to the common good and does not do those constructive things he might otherwise have done. Passiveness in sports encourages passiveness in social life and in politics. The mere spectator never shares in the positive rewards of performance and competition. Watching tennis at age fifty is infinitely less productive than playing it. The mere spectator fails to develop whatever innate talents he has and cheats himself of sport’s true joys.” (Michener, 1976, p. 86)
With the explosion of television coverage of sports, this question is even more relevant than when Michener commented on it in 1976. What price are we paying for our shift from active participation to passive consumption of sport?
The distortion of the value and purpose of sport in our culture has lead to the evolution of a sports system that is badly out of step with our nation’s health needs. Rather than maximizing opportunities to become involved in and reap the personal and health benefits of organized athletics, our current system weeds out, at an earlier and earlier age, everyone but those who display extraordinary potential.
In promoting this "elitist" structure, we have failed to advance the idea that sport for pure exercise is positive, fun, and healthy. Rather, athletics must be about winning and developing future all-stars and pros. If we believe sport to be a character building activity, an activity that prepares youth for adulthood and instills in them important values and discipline, why is our system of organized athletics not structured to encourage maximum participation?
Even the case for the positive health benefits of participation in competitive athletics may not be as clear-cut as it seems. While participation in elite, organized sport requires exercise, it is anything but moderate. In far too many cases, the physical demands and expectations required of competitive athletics borders on abuse. For example, incidences of “overuse” injuries in young athletes are increasing due to pressure to specialize in a particular sport and commit to year-round training at young ages. Because the rewards for winning -- wealth, notoriety, adulation, and fame -- have become so great, athletes and even their parents are more than willing to place the athlete’s lifelong physical health at risk for these immediate and fleeting rewards. Coaches, chasing the same rewards, do nothing to dissuade the athlete from doing so.
For sport to fully maximize its potential to positively affect the health and fitness of our populace, its focus should be upon involving the maximum number of participants. Unfortunately, in our current system an increasingly large commitment of money, time, effort, and emotion is heaped upon only those athletes who might have the potential to play major college or professional sports. From a public health standpoint, that is madness.
While we can certainly enjoy watching March Madness, to fully leverage sports’ potential health benefits, we must begin playing more and watching less.