The biggest problems with brackets is that they have to be filled. Once you decide on a set number of people or groups or teams that are going to enter into a particular tournament, one has the task of filling those brackets. It scarcely matters if all of them are well qualified or not, it matters that those spots have to be filled by someone–hopefully the best qualified people or teams–and if some are not very good, they are better than the other people that could fill those spots.
I am a fan of bracketology. I ponder every winter and spring what teams will fill the NCAA brackets, which teams will be on the bubble, and also what sort of profile fits those teams that make it versus those who do not. The point is that a lot of teams which are not very good have to make it to fill up the slots. Does one pick a second team from the miserable Pac-12, like Washington? What about a seventh or eighth or ninth team from the Big-10 or Big East, like a Northwestern (which has never made the NCAA tournament in its entire history) or South Florida (which has only made it twice in history, second fewest among all major college teams) or Pitt (which lost its first seven conference games, mostly in shambolic fashion), or Arkansas, a team that hasn’t won away from home at all the entire season? At this point, the teams to choose from simply aren’t very good. And 68 teams have to make it.
We normally like to think of ourselves as exclusive, but in reality a lot of human activities rely on filling brackets. For example, the United States Congress is 535 people; 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators. This is akin to filling a bracket. Someone has to be slotted in from Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont, North and South Dakota. Two people from each state have to be slotted into each Senator’s slot. About 50 people have to be slotted in from California, one for each at large or smaller district. It scarcely matters if no qualified person is there running to fill the office, someone has to get the seat. Filling Congress is therefore filling a bracket, with all the “least of the evils” calculations that go into such a matter.
There is a subtle difference between whittling down and filling brackets. Often in life there are not a lot of slots, and so competition is fierce. For example, in writing, there might only be a couple of dozen stories or articles that a good magazine or journal can print in a year within a given genre of field of study, since the rest will be reprints from much more famous authors. There are clearly way more than that many stories that are worthwhile, so it takes a suburb article or story to be published. The same is true for candidates for adjunct history professors. The number of positions is far smaller than the number of people who can capably fill such positions. In such a position there is no thought of “filling brackets,” but rather there is the need to inform people as kindly as possible that even with rejection it is not because of a lack of quality, just because of a scarcity of opportunity.
And that ought to be a comforting thought. Ultimately, we all want to be accepted for good jobs and in good relationships. It is very appealing to succeed given a large number of suitable candidates and a small number of slots, if we are able to endure the inevitable rejection along the way without taking it too personally. This is not easy for me personally, I must admit. It is very appealing, and even more joyful, to have the number of slots more or less equivalent with the number of qualified candidates, so that everyone deserving finds a place. That way the deserving find their opportunity to shine, and everyone is benefitted by it.
It is, however, least satisfying to everyone when the unworthy receive honor and glory because there have to be enough people to fill in the slots. This is the whole problem of affirmative action. Affirmative Action is bracketing in action. It’s saying that there have to be x number of minorities or women who get spots, but we’re not confident that they can earn it on their own merits, so we are going to force those slots to be reserved for the undeserving simply because we need diversity. It means that more qualified candidates get declined, and that those who fill the slots for disadvantaged people fail to receive the message that they earned their success, rather they get the message loud and clear that they had to clear a lower bar to reach their position, with all the disincentives that gives them to work harder or achieve more.
The trouble with brackets is that the people filling out the brackets, the people filling the slots in the brackets, and everyone else who witnesses the process has something to complain about, and some feeling of dissatisfaction and injustice. There are always questions about whether the people or teams chosen were just. Did one choose a job applicant because of their race or gender or what college they went to or some personal connection that is not relevant to what they do, whether for those who are judged as “privileged” or “underprivileged?” It’s the same question as choosing a team in the bracket either because they belong to a major conference (without being a great team themselves) or choosing a team deliberately because they were from a smaller conference and get fewer chances. No matter what you choose, by filling out brackets one is going to have to admit unjust and irrelevant concerns into your own decisions as well as the decisions of others. Even going on “ratings” is biased because those ratings are often subtly affected by the quality of competition, which means that those who have more privilege tend to acquire better credentials given equal capabilities.
Too often we only look at the end goal in mind, without realizing that justice requires massive changes in how we organize our societies, and how opportunities must be given all the way down the line in ways that do not judge people by irrelevant qualities but provide chances for all to show their worthiness, so that when after years of hard work and preparation it is time to fill slots, that we can genuinely do so without bias, or at least as close to it as humanly possible, and so that neither the success of those chosen nor the honor and dignity of those rejected is cheapened by undue bracketology in our approach.