LIKE VENUS or Jesus or Elvis, NCAA tournament brackets have been rendered in every conceivable medium, artistic and otherwise. They're inked onto newsprint, pixillated in cyberspace, drawn freehand on paper, configured as Excel spreadsheets or conjured as iPad apps. President Obama—his first name a vague echo of bracket—fills his out with a dry-erase marker on a whiteboard, which always rests on an easel, as if college basketball brackets were works of art.
And they are, of course, though the original artist is lost to history. Unlike other iconic line drawings (think of the London Underground map, designed in 1931 by an electrical draftsman named Harry Beck, who was paid roughly $10 for his work) tournament brackets have no single inventor, no Thomas Edison.
They have been around from at least Edison's time (Wimbledon has required an organizing structure since 1877, when that tournament began with 22 registrants) but somehow brackets still appear timeless. You can imagine brackets among the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France—126 intersecting lines, surrounded by the bulls and cats and other cartoon animals that survive today as college mascots.
Like those cave paintings, or that subway map, brackets have been parodied, ripped off, adapted, copied—and especially photocopied. The invention of the Xerox machine rapidly accelerated their rise, which has been incredible, though not inedible.
In 2013 you can find brackets frosted onto cakes, the team names written in icing. One baker's brackets had each school represented by an individual cookie. You get beaten, you get eaten.
Online shoppers can buy a replica of Michael Jordan's North Carolina jersey whose back—just below the number 23—is embroidered with the 1982 NCAA brackets, embroidery being the perfect medium for this national symbol.
If you use brackets as your map of the United States, the cardinal directions on it are East, West, South and Midwest. Brackets have no North, making them difficult to navigate, with or without a compass. But then anyone who has ever entered a bracket pool already knows that it's impossible to find your way out—or nearly so, given that there are nine quintillion possible routes from 64 teams down to one national champion. The actual number is 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. That's why Yahoo! can offer $5 million to anyone who makes it through their pool with unblemished brackets.
All of this explains why Americans will stop working sometime between Selection Sunday and Thursday's tournament tip-off and turn their attention to brackets, in all their myriad media. The brackets that graced Grand Central Station in 2012—50 feet wide and 32 feet tall—were just another, literal reminder that brackets are bigger than they've ever been as the NCAA tournament enters its 75th year.
THERE IS A growing literature about brackets, enough to support a small bookshelf, which is what brackets do if you buy them at the hardware store, though that's not all that brackets support. The word bracket derives from the Spanish bragueta, or codpiece, an ancient kind of athletic supporter. When a guy fills out his bracket, he is in an etymological sense filling out a codpiece, or trying to do so.
That isn't surprising, because we invest more than a few billion dollars and nearly as many collective office hours in our tournament brackets. For many, filling out a bracket is a matter of pride, a barometer of knowledge, a measure of manhood.