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Column: Madness inspires extremes

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The NCAA men's basketball tournament kicked off last week with a two-day celebration of sports that over the years has become one of this country's favorite second-tier national holidays. It's got less drunken debauchery than St. Patrick's Day but more mail delivery than Columbus Day.

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Businesses don't typically give employees time off for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, which featured 16 games both Thursday and Friday last week, but they might as well. In 2006, outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas estimated the NCAA tournament costs employers $3.8 billion in lost productivity. The firm appears to have arrived at the number by a popular scientific method commonly referred to as "taking a wild guess," and it's hard to find fault with the results. Back when this newspaper was owned by a single person my boss also sold satellite dishes out of the office. He had a big television and the ability to pull in any CBS feed he wanted. If you ever felt like we put out particularly slender issues in late March and early April, well, now you know why.

So far I've managed to keep up with my work during this year's tournament, but keeping up with games has meant sacrificing other, less important things like keeping up with non-basketball television shows and personal hygiene. You don't get to see great moments like Michigan State's last-minute game-winner over Maryland if you're worried about a little body odor.

There's more semi-made up scientific information than just productivity numbers to support the notion that people will go to extremes to satisfy a sporting passion that exists for exactly four weeks every year. According to a story published last week by the St. Paul Pioneer Press there is anecdotal evidence that the number of vasectomy procedures goes up during the NCAA tournament. The theory is, men will use any excuse they can get to sit on the couch and watch a little college basketball. Something called the Oregon Urology Institute has even been promoting something called its Snip City campaign, which offers patients sports magazines, pizza and a bag of frozen peas to aid in their recovery.

You know you're serious about the tournament when you're willing to let a stranger take a scissors to your most sensitive anatomy just for a chance to watch Richmond play St. Mary's.

We're nowhere near that serious in our office, but several of us still took a long lunch Friday to watch the University of Minnesota play its opening-round game against Xavier. Watching Tubby's team fall apart in the second half wasn't as painful as a surgical sterilization, but it was close.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to get excited about the NCAA tournament, of course. With tiny schools from tinier conferences going up against some of the most storied programs in the sport it is one of the rare opportunities to see a true underdog triumph against the odds. This year's tournament hasn't disappointed on that front. There have been buzzer-beating shots to win games and there have been monumental upsets. Northern Iowa toppled overall number one seed Kansas on Sunday. And Cornell, led by the son of former Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman, knocked off Wisconsin. That win was so convincing the Wolves are lobbying to have it count on their record.

There is likely more excitement to come. And whether those productivity numbers are true or not there will be plenty of attention paid as the field is whittled down to its eventual champion.

Now, where are those peas.

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