We describe in great detail the ethical norms of everything from the World Cup to the World Trade Organization, but the 19th-century German philosopher Nietzsche (as discussed in a previous post, here) invites us to consider the possibility that sheer competition is valuable in and of itself.
So what would Nietzsche think of the Tournament? For those currently taking up residence under a rock (evidently one with internet access), the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament is simply a big deal. TV ratings skyrocket, Economists complain of the hundreds of millions of dollars lost in office productivity (oxymoron noted) across the country, and the Leader of the Free World takes a stab at picking the winners. But what’s the fuss about? The tournaments of the last two years should suffice as an example.
In both tournaments, parity has been the name of the game around college basketball – once tournament time comes around, all sixty-some-odd teams are on the same playing field. Fans go berserk for upsets galore, but not, I think, so that more difficult teams are eliminated, paving the way for their own favorite. I would argue that only the true killjoys hope for all the No. 1 seeds to win their games as expected (I’m sorry, Mr. President).
What is interesting about this, however, is that one would expect that the truly epic games would be heavyweight bouts rather than these popular David-and-Goliath rehashes. One would also expect that the tournament is held to determine who is the best team in the land. But we all know for absolute certainty that we don’t care if the “best team” wins – in fact, in our heart of hearts, we root against it with all our might. So what do we want?
Nietzsche discusses the Ephesians’ banishment of one of their foremost citizens, saying “Among us, no one shall be the best; but if someone is, then let him be elsewhere and among others” (Homer’s Contest, 1872). This weekend, it’d be worth reflecting on whether we’re hoping to discern who the “best team” is. However, I think this answer is a resounding “no”. Six games of single-elimination wouldn’t come about that way.
What we’re really in it for is a wild ride.
When discussing adversarial ethics, we become concerned with the regrettable situation which happens in contest, whereby someone must lose. However, what if the real pity in this weekend’s Final Four is that someone has to win? The contest must end, and as an unfortunate byproduct, we must have a champion – not necessarily the best team, mind you, but a champion.
In the interest of full disclosure: this last year – when Duke was still very much alive in the Final Four – I was, of course, focused like a laser beam on the process of crowning a champion. But with Duke out in the Sweet 16 this year, my thoughts seem to have turned decisively to a certain 19th-century German philosopher…