The mantra of the NCAA tournament is “survive and advance.” It occurs to me that this is a bit of a strange mantra. The notion is that, in light of the fact that it’s a once-and-done tournament, a win-and-move-on or lose-and-go-home, any loss no matter how noble is useless and any win no matter how ugly gets the job done. We’ve already seen this play out in the first games of the current tournament, and we will see it again and again, in this tournament and subsequent ones. It’s vastly different from other sports ideals, both in the United States and beyond.
That paramount sport of Europe, soccer (or ‘football’) is often referred to by its most fervent adherents as the ‘beautiful game,’ emphasizing its form and style, its panache, if you will. In Italy, the ideal score in said beautiful game is 1-0. Such a score is meant to indicate several things about the performance of the victor. Naturally, it indicates the ability of the victor to shut down and neutralize their opponent. It also indicates the ability of the victor to apply only the necessary and appropriate amount of pressure. There is a level of finesse implied in this judicious use of force that is sought under this Italian way of thinking.
American baseball, with its marathon season and the unrealistic hope of a .750 winning percentage accepts imperfection. A single lost game or two, even in the playoffs, is to be expected. Chance continues to play its role, but has to strike either at an extremely pivotal moment or over the long haul to have a genuine effect on a series as a whole. Baseball’s overriding desired qualities, then, are consistency and trending or momentum.
In other American sports, I’m thinking especially of college football, the structure is such that victories alone are not good enough. Domination is necessary to achieve the highest rankings. Even a hint of weakness can crucially effect the perception of these teams potency. Dirty wins do not get the job done under this formula.
By comparison, “Survive and advance” appears drastically different from other sports philosophies. It is, in a sense, a most brutal and realistic assessment. It is Darwinian in its disregard for aesthetics, looking merely for results rather than style. It is quintessentially American, in that it carries shades of capitalist demand for returns. A nice team fails if it can’t cut it, while the strong survive regardless of their specific tactics. An exposed weakness is an invitation for defeat. I’m reminded of my young-Republican friends thumping their chests and talking boldly of ‘necessary measures’ or proclaiming ‘a win is a win.’
With the previous observations, I open it up. Is there tragedy in the brutal blade that comes down, the scythe that separate wheat from chaff regardless of the intentions or wheat or chaff? Or is there something appropriate in a competition that mirrors life and philosophy so well, that reminds us that sometimes ‘you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do’ to ‘git-r-done,’ which sometimes is to simply ‘survive and advance.’