Bracket Grace

March 31st, 2011

You probably don’t remember the television show Second Chance. It was a sitcom on Fox starring Matthew Perry that ran for two months in 1987—back when there were major markets without Fox affiliates. The protagonist was an older man named Charles who died in a hovercraft accident in 2011. (It’s 2011. Why isn’t there a hovercraft in my driveway?) Upon death his soul goes directly to Saint Peter for judgment. Peter determines that Charles is too good for hell but too bad for heaven and sends him back to 1987, where (when) he tries to persuade his younger self (Perry) to do more good and less bad, thus shifting the judgment scales in his favor.

Eleven-year-old me loved Second Chance and watched all six or seven episodes. (Fox re-launched the show in 1988 without 2011 Charles and Saint Peter and called it Boys Will Be Boys. That lasted for a few months before the fledgling network canceled the show altogether.) I didn’t realize then how theologically flawed its premise was. The divine ledger sheet that assigns positive or negative values to all of our actions then determines, at the time of death, whether we are in the red or the black doesn’t account for God’s grace or the atonement Christ has made on our behalf. The unheralded sitcom that I remember so fondly was based entirely on works righteousness.

Second Chance came to mind as I was thinking about the NCAA Tournament—the Big Dance. Each year, a group of college athletic directors and conference commissioners gather to choose at-large teams to join the automatic qualifiers (conference tournament champions and the Ivy League’s regular-season champion), to seed the teams, and to place the teams in the bracket.

Deciding which teams get the at-large invitations is a messy business. Some teams are obviously worthy and don’t have to worry about whether they’ll receive a bid. Other teams find themselves on the proverbial bubble if they fail to win their respective conference tournaments.

The messiness comes into play when the committee sorts through the bubble teams and determines which are most deserving. Like the seat of judgment on Second Chance, the Selection Committee has to sort through each team’s “rights” and “wrongs” and decide whether a team is in or out.

The Selection Committee has tools at its disposal, most notably the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), a metric that combines a team’s winning percentage, a team’s opponents’ winning percentage, and a team’s opponents’ opponents’ winning percentage. The RPI provides an objective (if incomplete) way to compare two teams, even if those teams haven’t faced each other on the court. It also tells the committee which teams have played the toughest schedules.

But the committee doesn’t select teams based on RPI alone. (If it did, Missouri State would make a lot more tournament appearances.) It also considers quality wins and bad losses, a team’s current configuration and the effect of injuries and/or suspensions, and a team’s record on the road or at neutral sites. Even after the committee factors in all this information, the “eye test”—committee members’ impressions of a team after watching that team in person—can influence decisions.

Each year CBS and ESPN interview angry coaches and analysts who can’t understand why a certain team wasn’t selected (or why a certain team was selected). Nerds like me over-analyze the bracket, looking for flaws in seeding or other supposed injustices. As soon as the selection show ends, hundreds of bloggers and newspaper columnists get to work writing about everything they believe is wrong with the bracket so that their lists of grievances will be ready for readers on Monday morning.

The good news for the Selection Committee is that, with a 68-team field, there is little or no chance that the best and most deserving teams will be left out. The most heated Monday-after arguments involve which team is the 68th most worthy to play for a national title.

The good news for all people is that God, unlike the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, doesn’t rely on records or statistics when deciding who will receive an invitation to God’s Big Dance. God’s grace is available to all, even and especially those whose record of rights and wrongs isn’t favorable (and many of us would fit into that category). We have the freedom to resist God’s grace or to embrace it, but the invitation is there.

I’m not sure what Second Chance would have been like if the writers and producers had incorporated grace in the show’s premise. It probably wouldn’t have worked. (Judging by its two-month run, I suppose the grace-less version of the show didn’t work either.)

But grace might have a place in the NCAA Tournament. Why should college basketball fans be content with works righteousness? Why should we allow a selection committee to assess each team’s achievements and flaws then pass judgment? Each March, my dad makes the argument that the NCAA Tournament should include all 345 Division I teams. (This would require an opening round, similar to this year’s “First Four,” to pare down the number of teams to 256. From there the tournament would be spread out over four weekends instead of three.) Instead of penalizing teams for bad losses in November and December, the grace-filled NCAA Tournament would assure teams that such sins had been forgiven.

I don’t expect the NCAA to adopt the 345-team format anytime soon. (Its board of directors shied away from a proposed 96-team field just last year.) But we should all take comfort in knowing that our salvation doesn’t involve a selection committee, a record of rights and wrongs, or mathematical assessments of our worthiness. We don’t have to worry about being sent back in time to mentor our younger selves, and we don’t have to worry about not getting an invitation to the Big Dance.

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