Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Musings on Sports - Cinderellas, Sweet Sixteens and What's in a Name?

As regular readers of this blog are aware, the Monday post was usually devoted to sports with highlights and analysis of the Max Kellerman show which formerly aired on 1050 ESPN Radio. Although Max resigned from 1050 almost one year ago, I have tried to continue the tradition of linking sports to Torah which I believe was an undercurrent of the Max Kellerman show.

The past eight days has been the start of the annual tradition known as "March Madness." (For an interesting look at the origins of that trademarked term, click here Commencing with the growing holiday known as "Selection Sunday" and running through the championship game on the first Monday night in April, much of the country becomes involved with rooting for any combination of: their alma maters; teams from little known schools which have garnered national attention; or teams that they have picked in their brackets to go to the final four.

The tournament itself is not without controversy. On Selection Sunday (the day teams find out whether they have made the NCAA tournament and if so, which seed they received) there are always interviews with coaches who express disappointment over their team's seeding or their relegation to the NIT (aka the Not Invited Tournament).

Following Selection Sunday there is a mad scramble to learn as much as possible about the 65 teams in the Tournament in the three plus days before the first real games are played. Then the real magic starts. Games begin at noon on Thursday and Friday and run until late into the night. Fans at sites around the United States watch two game sets and invariably a lower ranked team from one of the aforementioned small schools will upset a large college from a major conference. The media then anoint these schools "Cinderellas" since they were not expected to advance at the dance. If one of these Cinderellas manages to win a second game it becomes a media darling for having advanced to the sweet sixteen.

Looking past the emotion of a David upsetting a Goliath, the question needs to be asked - is the lower ranked team properly ranked. In certain situations there truly is an upset, such as where a major power which has lost a handful of games is beaten by a school with many losses which just happens to have a hot game. But more often than not, the Cinderella team also has very few losses. For example, this year Cornell was deemed a Cinderella for beating higher ranked Temple and Wisconsin. However, Cornell only had four losses this year (less than Temple and Wisconsin) and two of Cornell's losses were to top 10 teams Syracuse and Kansas which together had five losses. So why was Cornell ranked so lowly by the NCAA Tournament committee? Because they came from the Ivy League and do not have a national presence.

In fairness, there are teams which come from small conferences which while playing other small schools do receive national recognition and higher rankings. Some recent small schools which have achieved high rankings are Butler and Gonzaga. However, these schools have earned their recognition by upsetting higher ranked teams in many consecutive NCAA tournaments.

The question as to whether a team is fairly ranked or even gets into the NCAA Tournament can easily be linked to Torah thought. A number of weeks ago, R' Frand taught a ma'amar which states that a person has three names - the one he is given by his parents, the one that his friends give him and the one that he earns. R' Frand explained that this is not merely an issue of semantics or nicknames. The three stages are indicative of the impact and influence of various groups in one's life. For the first stage of life, a person's actions are largely impacted by one's parents. Thereafter, as an adolescent, the influences are more from the child's friends. During the ultimate stage, the name that the person earns is based on the persons actions as an adult and he is judged based on the person that he has become. Somewhat similarly, while these teams quibble about the height of their rankings or their selection to the Tournament, the issue truly is what name they have earned during their regular season lifetime.

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