Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Deep Sport--the Upside of Brackets & Drafts

Well my species based brackets got shot up, but so did everyone else. On the other hand I and millions, yes millions of other human beings did spend hours thinking and working on brackets, most of which failed. But people will do the same thing next year. The only good thing about mine was that I was wrong about the Wildcats and the arch-fiend did not make it to the finals. But I want to think about the whole idea of people making up brackets and mock drafts and fantasy leagues.

It can look silly, really. People spending tens of millions of hours (yes that is right)  to fill out mock drafts for the NFL or devoting time, thought, effort and discussion to fill out their NCAA brackets or manage their fantasy teams. It can look grotesque when ESPN and assorted talk radios obsess endlessly and turn the exercises into media extravaganzas.

But something else is going on here. To an outsider or nonbeliever, like my wife who regards it all with a bemused tolerance and disdain, all this effort looks like an immense waste of time. But to me something interesting is happening here. Mock drafts, bracket making, fantasy leagues, following the Hot Stove league all force fans to think, to think hard about the structure and nature of the game and team they love.

I believe thinking is a good thing. I believe that thinking hard about something is an even better thing. It expands a person's imagination and knowledge base and stretches their appreciation of something, in this case sport. It makes people "students" of the game. As a teacher I might prefer people spend more time thinking about politics or the meaning of life, but I'll take an activity that induces millions of people to research, imagine and think about sports. My wife adds that it increases math skills (whoa! never thought of that) and to carry on despite a broken heart!

To construct an actual  bracket requires a person to know teams, but more importantly to know something about teams. Can a team A's  2/3 zone deal with team B's speed or fast break? Can a team's long limbed defense take away another team's quickness or outside shooting. To ask these questions and to think about them means a person must delve into the configuration of a game and what is required where different styles of play confront each other.

Constructing a mock draft requires a person to reflect carefully upon their team and other teams. A fan has to ask what kind of offense or defense they should develop and what is required of them to compete successfully against other teams. A mock draft demands that a fan dig into the needs of a team and the skill and character of possible players.

Creating and managing a fantasy team means a person has to think about the structure of the game. They have to determine what makes an offense or defense work and then match people to the approach they design. Jim Collins in Good to Great would call it learning to get the right people on the right seat in a bus.

Doing all this means a person has to research a lot of information from a lot of different sources. It may seem a waste of time, but it engages a person in  research, evaluation and inquiring into the nature of the game.

These exercises ask people to probe the core of the sport. What is the essence of the sport? At their core sports like nature possess an elegant simplicity. The simplicity is revealed in archetypical moments: a precise baseball double play; a sweep strung out by the defense that cuts for either a gain or stuff; a quick fake, cut, pass for a textbook back door play. Each case demonstrates the triumph of skill, knowledge and execution. The archetypes illustrate the deep core of that sport. Baseball: individuals acting in unique space coordinating actions in non-clock time time; football: extended planned force meeting planned reactive force to move in space; basketball: speed, misdirection, clearing space for high percentage actions.

Each sport has a center, a deep core structure that players and managers internalize. Good teams and players and coaches develop approaches, even philosophies of approaching the game. No one ever masters or exhausts the core of a sport. In this sense, playing or appreciating a sport is like approaching art, you can never exhaust its possibilities, and even within formal rules like in music or classical painting, a person expands boundaries, evinces new skills and creates new possibilities. The form, the art, the game evolves through the engagement of mind and talent and competition.

The deep reality of sport plays out in the play of the field but also the play of brackets, drafts and fantasy leagues.

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