KEN MYERS LIES on his back staring at the ceiling of his North Tampa urologist's exam room. He nervously chitchats about his NCAA tournament brackets as a wisp of smoke escapes from a tiny incision in the top of his scrotum, filling the air with the distinct burnt-hair smell of his own freshly cauterized vas deferens. For the next few minutes, as the vasectomy continues, there will be a glowing, red-hot cauterizing gun, a razor-sharp clamp and a piston-driven lidocaine applicator that feels, as the doctor nonchalantly says, a bit like "a rubber band flick." All of it pokes around Myers' nether regions until there's a pop of some kind, followed by a twinge of pain that causes Myers to contort his torso and suck in air noisily through his teeth. Then, ugh, more smoke.
Through it all, though, Myers, who scheduled his appointment for this specific day in January, remains calm and downright jocular, with his eyes squarely on the prize: guilt-free, unlimited and uninterrupted couch time to watch the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, which tips off just a few hours later. It's a common theme on this day, even in the always-packed offices of Dr. Doug Stein, whose goofy highway billboards on Interstate 4 are something of a Florida institution.
"You picked a helluva way to get out of work, Ken," Stein says.
"You gotta admit, Doc, it's a pretty good trade-off," Myers replies.
Welcome, friends, to the smoldering front lines of what has to be the strangest phenomenon in the wild and wonderfully weird world of sports: Vas Madness. Turns out, Vas Madness is neither myth nor Facebook rumor.
In the last several years, urologists across the country have reported increases of as much as 50 percent in the number of vasectomies scheduled in the days leading to the NCAA tournament. With a little bit of clever scheduling, it appears men have found a loophole that turns one of life's more unpleasant procedures into a four-day vasectomy vacation that coincides perfectly with March Madness.
For more than a century, the vasectomy -- surgical severing of the spaghetti-like vas deferens to prevent it from transporting sperm from the testicles -- has been the most effective permanent form of birth control for men. Most men, however, still tend to run in the opposite direction at the mere mention of the words scalpel and scrotum. So urologists have been quick to co-opt the lure of the NCAA tournament to entice patients through the door and onto the table. (A urology clinic in Texas says the second-most popular time for men to have a vasectomy is ... wait for it ... the Vasters.) Myers, for one, needed the extra nudge. He procrastinated for six and a half years and still had second thoughts a week before the surgery when a friend left two Emerald nuts on his desk at work with a note: "You're gonna miss these."
No wonder so many urologists now offer full-blown Vas Madness celebrations with discounts and extended hours during the tournament, T-shirts, food, sports memorabilia and even ice bags with team logos to replace the traditional bag of frozen peas. During last year's tournament, the Urology Associates of Cape Cod lured patients with pizza coupons and an ad featuring the tag line "Want to watch college basketball guilt-free?" This year, a urology group in Austin, Texas, is sponsoring a "It's Hip to Get Snipped" Vas Madness promotion that includes extended office hours during games ("much less crowded than a sports bar" says one ad), continuous TV coverage in the lobby, free snacks, a pledge to have patients "ready for love" by the postseason and the icing on the cake: official doctor's orders prescribing three days on the couch.
Few things demonstrate just how popular March Madness has become better than Vas Madness, a time when men are more than happy to drop their pants and snip away four million years of evolutionary imperative, all in exchange for a brief nag-free environment in which to enjoy Mercer slingshotting Duke. "Oh, it's much bigger than that," says Stein, who performs more than 2,000 vasectomies a year around the globe and sees his work more as a calling than a profession. "There isn't a single problem in the world that isn't based, on some level, with population control. So hey, Vas Madness or the NCAA tournament or a T-shirt -- anything that helps, I'm all for it."
Originally a skeptic of the Vas Madness phenomenon, even Stein becomes a convert to the power of the tourney as the day wears on and evidence mounts. The day's first patient, Steve, a tan 52-year-old Tampa man with spiky gray hair and five kids, leaves the exam room, plops down his credit card to pay the remainder of his $500 fee and yells: "Well, I'm a gelding now! When do the games start?"
The small, crowded office is busy and buzzing all day with the sound of an instructional video on vasectomies, the phone ringing off the hook, '80s soft rock and a waiting room full of nervous men passing the time with talk about their brackets. Inside the exam room, Dr. Stein's distinct, high-pitched Muppet voice repeats the same instructions 17 times in four hours: "I'll give you a countdown -- 3, 2, 1. Do you have your scrotal support in place?"
Steve is followed by a CPA who likes Wichita State; a single guy wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey; and a Steelers fan in shorts and a deer hunting T-shirt, checking his phone for updates while rooting hard against Ohio State in the tournament. Most of the men exit Stein's exam room surprised at how easy -- and fast -- the procedure was. A few look wobbly and pale, and a nurse hands them each a soda to help boost their blood sugar. Bill Mann, a manager at an electronics company, becomes the third patient who scheduled his appointment in January specifically to take advantage of Vas Madness. He likes Michigan State and says he has a cooler, sushi and a spot on the couch for the afternoon's games waiting for him at his home in Madeira Beach. "Is there a better week to be forced to lie around and watch nonstop basketball?" Mann asks, leaning in conspiratorially. "This is as close to a perfect excuse as you'll ever get. It's genius."
When Myers' procedure comes to an end, Stein instructs him to hold a bandage in place "so that it doesn't fall on the ground when you stand up."
The doc waits a perfect beat, then adds: "The gauze, I mean."
Myers is still chuckling as he stands at the end of the exam table, staring out of the room's massive windows down onto a busy Bruce B. Downs Boulevard; directly across the street, the parking lot of a Hooters is filling up with hoops fans scrambling to steal a few minutes away from work and a passable viewing spot for the glorious four-day opening weekend of March Madness.
Myers, meanwhile, smiles the self-assured smile of a man whose kingdom on the couch has already been secured. Myers' grateful wife, Kathleen, has already promised to give him the royal treatment while he recovers this weekend. "'Reclining' is a major word they use in the literature about recovering from a vasectomy," Ken says. "Hey, I don't know if I'm gonna get 12 full hours in of hoops after this. But I promise you this: I will do my best."
Myers is followed by the day's final patient, Jeff Barber, who had originally planned to have his vasectomy in 2012. But then, you know, the whole Mayan doomsday thing came up and he somehow convinced his wife, Kim, that he needed to remain fully functional should they be called upon to help repopulate the planet. Two years later, out of excuses, the Florida grad and die-hard Gators fan started looking for incentives instead. In January, remembering the school's back-to-back national titles in 2006-07 and anticipating another deep tourney run by his Gators, Barber, who works in IT, checked the NCAA calendar, bit the bullet and scheduled the appointment. "It has helped me go through with it," he says, seated on the edge of the exam table, swallowing hard, seconds away from seeing Dr. Stein and his cauterizer. "As a man, I'm not looking forward to this procedure. But as a hoops fan, I am looking forward to the aftereffect."
Just to be sure, Barber, dressed in khakis and a golf shirt, continued negotiating his post-op arrangement in the car all the way over to the doctor's office. "Home in bed, TV on, order me a pizza, get me a cooler, keep the kids in the other room and just let me chill and watch hoops," he says. A noncommittal Kim rolls her eyes and responds, "I'm here for one reason: to make sure the deal gets done."
Less than 15 minutes after leaving the waiting room, the deal is indeed done. Wisconsin is pulling away from American, but there hasn't even been enough time for Dayton to surrender its lead over Ohio State. Barber is moving gingerly and he's a few shades paler, but he has a relieved smile on his face. It's done. He shrugs his shoulders. No biggie. Kim clicks off her cellphone and puts a palm on his cheek. Everything went great, and Vas Madness 2014 is off to a roaring start, especially here in Gator country.
With Florida set to tip off in just under an hour, the Barbers slowly make their way to the exit where, before leaving Dr. Stein's office, they stop to exchange a gentle high-five.
They both agree that Jeff might not be quite ready for a full Gator chop.