Humans loath unfairness. It’s baked into our DNA. That’s just one of the many reasons the NCAA basketball tournaments every March don the moniker “Madness.”
The famous psychology experiment The Ultimatum Game captures this perfectly. Player A is given a sum of money and must propose a way to divide it between themselves and Player B. If Player B accepts, they both receive their allocated amounts. But if Player B rejects, neither player receives any money. Subjects will often forego any money at all if the other person in the experiment gets more. Walking away empty-handed is seen as preferable to receiving free cash if unfairness is involved.
This is consistent through all primates. In one of the most comical experiments ever performed, a monkey will throw its cucumber snack back at the scientist if they see another monkey receiving the more desirable grape.
One need only observe young children in their natural habitat to see our innate distaste for unfairness manifest. In my home, after carefully counting the Skittles into three purportedly equal bowls for movie night, one of my 12-and-under children is bound to notice an unfair discrepancy (“She got more greens!”), leading to my eventually proclaiming something along the lines of, “Exact fairness isn’t possible!”
David, Goliath, and the Peacocks
Many of these young children grow up indoctrinated into the American cult of March Madness. And they still want fairness. We all do. Sports seems to be the place where we can achieve this ideal. After all, sport is a true meritocracy: may the best team win. The athletes all start the 100-meter dash at the same place and run in a straight line until the end. The fastest is the fastest.
But when March Madness arrives, we’re treated to a modern-day David versus Goliath. Goliath—one of history’s original 1-seeds—takes on the much smaller and purportedly weaker David. And when 16-seed David emerges the winner (which has happened just once in 148 games), or a 15-seed wins and keeps winning, they serve as the poster child for all human injustice, capturing much of the human condition in one, short, well-told story. Madness.
Last year’s David, the 15-seed St. Peters Peacocks, squared off against Goliath, in the form of Kentucky. Kentucky was coached by John Calipari, paid $9.27 million annually. The Peacocks were led by Shaheen Holloway, paid 4% of that at $300,000. Four percent.
The Peacocks play in an arena with a capacity of 3,200. It’s an endearing space, named after their strategy to beat the slow-paced Duke in the 1968 NIT tournament: “The Run Baby Run Arena.” Kentucky’s Memorial Stadium, on the other hand, is fancier, has “Memorial” in its moniker, and hosts 8,500 cheering fans. According to 2019-2020 Department of Education data, St. Peters allotted $1.6 million for their men’s basketball budget. This, compared to a combined $29.2 million for the budgets of the three teams they defeated in last year’s March Madness Tournament: Kentucky, Murray State, and Purdue.
A true David v. Goliath endeavor.
So when David’s Peacocks repeatedly beat various Goliaths to become the first 15-seed to make it to the Elite 8, humans celebrated: We recognize that this ideal of sport being purely fair is, on the one hand, unattainable. And we recognize that life does not actually have us all starting at the same starting line. We don’t all inhabit the same “arenas,” nor with equally skilled “coaches.”
These 1-seeds have mounds of resources. Top coaches, state-of-the-art training facilities, and a rich-get-richer ethos built into their programs: Come to our university, be a part of a 1-seed, win a championship. Even the Peacocks’ historical run in the tournament ended with an additional loss: their stellar coach leaving small-school—and small-salary—basketball to accept an offer from Seaton Hall University for a base salary of $2.4 million over six years.
Yet on the other hand, the actual competition—the games—embody a sense of real, true fairness. The tournaments are seeded according to preestablished regulations, with the individual contests governed by clearly stated rules all adjudicated by unbiased expert referees. At the moment of the opening tipoff, neither your coach’s salary nor how fancy your stadium is matters.
So we can, as the adage goes, seek to control what we can control. Sometimes this means working twice as hard as the “competitor” on the other side of town. Sometimes it means reminding ourselves to step back and enjoy the process. And, sometimes it means we can be happy we’re able to play the game at all. All the while recognizing that a perfectly fair competition may be an ideal worth striving for, albeit, an unrealistic one. Life itself incurs some madness, and it’s how we both frame and react to the madness that matters most.