Even presidents need a touch of madness − in March

Then-Vice President Joe Biden at the NCAA men's Final Four semifinal between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Syracuse Orange on April 2, 2016, in Houston. <a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/vice-president-joe-biden-poses-for-a-picture-with-syracuse-news-photo/518788354?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Streeter Lecka/Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Streeter Lecka/Getty Images</a>
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Why would a president faced with lingering inflation at home and wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, among other problems, take time out to participate in the annual sports fan’s ritual of March Madness?

The “madness” began this year on March 17, when a committee appointed by the NCAA announced the field of 68 college basketball teams in each of two divisions – one for men and one for women – selected to compete for a national championship. The teams are divided into four brackets and seeded from 1 to 16, from best to worst, according to the judgment of the committee. The last two surviving men’s teams play on April 8 in the championship game, and the women’s surviving teams finish on April 7.

Tens of millions of college basketball fans, including the president if he chooses, take part in the ritual of filling out brackets, a task that involves trying to predict the winning teams starting with the first round of games.

It’s nearly impossible for anyone to predict the winner of every game. The chance of filling out a perfect bracket has been estimated to be 1 in 147 trillion attempts.

Following in the footsteps of former President Barack Obama, President Joe Biden has filled out brackets for the 2024 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. This year, Biden is playing it safe by choosing the No. 1 seeds in both tournaments to win the national championship: South Carolina in the women’s bracket and UConn in the men’s.

Biden’s predictions are bound to improve from last year. That’s when his top pick to win the men’s tournament, the No. 2-seeded University of Arizona, was upset in the first round by Princeton University.

Biden may be participating in March Madness because he, like other presidents, enjoys the competitive nature of sports. And sports allow presidents to “cast a positive image of their presidency and speak to audiences they might not be able to reach any other way,” as journalist Chris Cillizza has written. In this case, Biden is taking the opportunity to carry on like a regular fan.

Yet, as my co-author Tom Morris and I observe in our research for a book on the relationship between sports and politics, presidential involvement in sporting events offers both risks and rewards.

President Barack Obama accepts a team jersey at the White House on May 11, 2009, from the North Carolina Tar Heels, the 2009 NCAA Division I national champions, whom Obama picked to win in his March Madness bracket. <a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/university-of-north-carolina-mens-basketball-head-coach-roy-news-photo/87066338?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</a>

A sports fan, not a politician

Presidents have been participating in sporting events at least since April 14, 1910, when William Howard Taft threw a ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Senators baseball game on opening day. And presidents routinely invite championship teams to the White House to publicly acknowledge their accomplishments.

But Obama, an avid basketball fan, was the first president to complete an NCAA Tournament bracket. The idea emerged near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, when ESPN reporter Andy Katz suggested to Obama, “If you win, how about I come to the White House and we do an NCAA Tournament bracket.”

Obama agreed. After winning the 2008 presidential election, he followed through.

On March 18, 2009, Katz interviewed Obama about his selections on ESPN’s show “SportsCenter.” According to Katz, Obama took the job seriously: “President Obama made his picks as a sports fan, not as a politician. He was knowledgeable about the teams and was even up to date on the latest injuries involving the contenders. … It was clear that he enjoyed filling out his bracket like the rest of America.”

Obama’s supporters cheered his participation in March Madness, while some opponents criticized the move as a frivolous distraction. The president surely must have better things to do; why take the NCAA Tournament so seriously?

But by failing to complete a bracket for the women’s tournament, Obama invited criticism that he was not taking women’s basketball seriously enough.

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan faulted Obama: “As the father of two athletic daughters, President Obama should know all about the importance of sports for women and girls.”

From that point on, Obama completed brackets for both the men’s and women’s tournaments. He was interviewed about his choices for both tournaments on ESPN.

At least one of Obama’s brackets is in the Smithsonian.

Choosing to win

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney drew a contrast with Obama by choosing not to fill out a bracket. Romney announced: “I’m not plugged in well enough this year to do that.”

Although Obama defeated Romney in the election, Romney ultimately proved to be a better predictor of NCAA Tournament basketball games.

Acting as a mere citizen three years later, Romney participated in the ESPN Tournament Challenge with what the network called an “astounding success.” He predicted all of the Final Four teams in the men’s tournament, placing himself in the top 1% of people who filled out the bracket and earning the headline, “Romney bracket crushes Obama’s.”

Evaluating Obama’s predictions became a regular part of March Madness. Analysts not only critiqued Obama’s relatively poor track record in predicting outcomes. They also considered how those choices reflected his effort to connect with people.

Assessing Obama’s record over eight years, Sports Illustrated concluded: “President Obama used basketball as a way to bond with the American people but he has had ups and downs in making his NCAA tournament picks.”

No March Madness for Trump

After he left office, Obama the basketball enthusiast continued to fill out NCAA men’s and women’s tournament brackets. Meanwhile, his successor, President Donald Trump, declined ESPN’s invitation to complete what has been referred to as the “presidential bracket.”

Trump might have been too busy, disinterested in basketball or unwilling to associate himself with Obama. Nonetheless, Trump left open the possibility of a future engagement with sports. And he did correctly predict the Super Bowl winner in 2017.

White House spokesperson Hope Hicks announced: “We look forward to working with ESPN on another opportunity in the near future.”

Enjoying the madness

Biden has returned to Obama’s practice, though not with the same fervor or enthusiasm. In 2023, Biden submitted his brackets just a few minutes before the start of the first game.

Unlike Obama, who routinely participated in pickup games and had a basketball court installed on the White House grounds so he could practice shooting, Biden is less enamored of basketball. After all, he grew up playing baseball and was a star receiver for his high school football team.

When it comes to filling out NCAA brackets, presidents may be playing politics – or they may just be taking time to enjoy the madness.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

It was written by: Daniel Palazzolo, University of Richmond.

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Daniel Palazzolo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.