Like clockwork, we used to receive an evolved version of the same story every March: “March Madness Brackets Cost Employers $[Some Number in the Billions] In Lost Productivity.” $1.9 billion in 2015 became four billion in 2016, retreated to just over two billion in 2017, jumped to $6.3 billion in 2018, and almost doubled in 2019, when lost productivity skyrocketed to $13.3 billion. Year after year, labor analysts have warned that American workers cost their employers the GDP of Barbados in just a few weeks of dicking around.
Who knows whether these estimates ever had any merit? If they presumed employees spent their non-tournament weekdays attentively and efficiently, me and a boatload of Buzzfeed personality quizzes are here to tell you 1) that’s very much not the case and 2) nobody gets Ravenclaw without immediately retaking the quiz. But I digress.
No men’s or women’s tournaments in 2020 meant no work time lost filling out brackets and watching them get busted. Surely your job gave you your share of the billions you helped not waste as a result, no?
And you might be thinking there’s not going to be a version of this story in 2021, with many Americans still unemployed, working from home unexpectedly, or otherwise dealing with stressful jobs during a pandemic.
In any other year, I would breeze past this headline. In 2021, I rebuke it, because all those factors I just listed have denied an entire nation our true opportunity to loaf on the clock.
Part of the joy March Madness offers is an unspoken cooperative resolve to ignore work restrictions for the first round – usually a Thursday and Friday for the men’s tournament and a Friday for the women’s. (We didn’t even get that advantage this year, as the men’s schedule moved one day of first round games to the weekend and half of the first round for the women shifted to Monday, a much harder day on which to shirk one’s responsibilities.) Before the pandemic, these were essentially dead days, with mornings split between some half-hearted emails and last-minute bracket tinkering, and afternoons devoted to watching basketball on your work computer with the sound off.
The experience wasn’t joyful simply because it was happening on the clock. As lots of us have learned in the past year, the 9-to-5 framework is paper-thin, in good ways (screw it, watch WandaVision after breakfast and worry about revising that memo later) and bad (it’s 8:30 PM and yup, you’re working on that memo now). It was geography that made the heist worthwhile. The freedom to sit in your office building and flagrantly not work for hours, knowing your colleagues and bosses couldn’t say shit because they were guilty of the same misdemeanor, breathed life into March Madness. All of those lost productivity analyses also conclude there’s no point in trying to police these infractions, as businesses are better off embracing them as a part of office culture.
With some small exceptions, no other sport dares encroach on the work schedule like this. Bowl games stick to the holiday season, when work’s barely getting done anyway. The NFL playoffs only kick off on weekends. Weekday NBA and NHL posteason games all start at night. Major League Baseball will maybe air a playoff game or two during daylight hours mid-week, but that’s it. Tennis and golf break these rules, but only because they have no other choice, since court space is at a premium for the former and night is the sworn enemy of the latter.
In an economy where wages stagnate while corporate tax rates tumble, the kind of brazen time theft college basketball offered meant something. Where managers and ownership looked at the billions in lost productivity and quaked, we rejoiced. For a few days every spring, we were taking back the wealth, and we did it sitting in a chair the bosses bought, using internet the bosses paid for. They handed us the tools that made our crime possible, and there was nothing they could do about it.
That isn’t true in 2021. Watching the tournament in the middle of a workday from a ramshackle home office setup doesn’t have the same criminal thrill. We are responsible for these “workplaces.” When you live at your office, daytime sports aren’t an escape from work. They’re just delaying the dishes and laundry and childcare and cooking and vacuuming you need to do. The time we’ve stolen didn’t belong to our employers. We took it from ourselves.
Things won’t be this way forever, thankfully. Next year, hopefully, we’ll resume the temporal larceny March Madness offers up in the opening rounds, swindling the companies we work for out of billions. Don’t feel bad about it, either. It’s not like they’d pay us more if we didn’t.