“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

“It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.”

chess game

A few short years ago, the NFL lost two players whose choices in life impacted the sport to a far greater degree than their playing prowess: Reggie White and Pat Tillman. I write a lot about how the function of sports in our society is inspiration. Usually by that I mean both extraordinary physical feats and demonstrations of tremendous heart. But in the case of these two men I obviously mean the awe that we feel when another rises to a level of courage and commitment far higher than what most of us even strive to achieve.

And these two men always played to win. These weren’t non-confrontational wimps afraid of competition. They were tough defensive powerhouses who struck fear into their opponents’ psyches. They knew what Herm Edwards meant when he said, “You play to win the game.” So, fierce competitiveness is apparently not mutually exclusive with sportsmanship and honor.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s steroids, atheletes charging the stands, out-of-control abusive fans, lying or violent soccer/Little League parents and egotistical star athletes who act like petulant children. The most disheartening moment for me in sports recently (among many contenders!) was Ron Artest admitting that he had no idea what “integrity” meant. Millionaires many times over, some pros (and I use the term loosely) bitch about their salaries, manipulate our legal system and slug it out at the least provocation. Did I mention that they do this on national television? Ah, and there’s the key.

Many people in our wealthy society make too much money, behave badly – and get away with it all. It’s the dark side of capitalism and the American Dream. But when Kenneth Lay gets a slap on the wrist while keeping his millions it’s hard to tell a teenager or a young adult to be financially ethical. The only saving grace there is that 8-year-olds aren’t watching CNBC. But they are watching sports. So fights on the sidelines and drug-enhanced batting averages flood their thoughts unchecked.

And what do we say to them when we live in a “winning at all costs” culture?

The American Dream is all about winning. Winners are heroes, losers are goats and pariahs: from the iconization of Curt Shilling’s sock to our abysmal 20-year shunning of Vietnam vets. How many fund-raisers do you think John Kerry got invited to in 2005?

Winning translates to money in business. And sports entertainment is business. Sometimes we lose sight of that fact while cheering. Winning seasons lead to filled seats – not to mention millions in merchandizing and endorsements. The only reasons that football doesn’t have an “Evil Empire” equivalent to the New York Yankees are the salary cap and television revenue sharing. This remarkably socialistic concept allows teams in smaller markets to field a competitive team. But everything else revolves around the quest for dollars.

Look at the mandatory luxury stadium situation. Luxury suites – fine. There will always be people who want to spend that kind of money to drink while they essentially watch the game on television. And most people can usually scrape together enough money for the nosebleed section. But what about the middle-class seats? They are fast disappearing. Intermediate level seating is going for almost $1,000.00 for two seats – not including multiple thousands for the PSL! People who shell out that kind of change want to see their team win. And win often.

And when they don’t, you get those disgusting fair-weather partyers who head for the exits in the third quarter. (Incidentally, you’ll be happy to know that when Bruno rules the world, these people will have their season tickets confiscated on the spot and given to real fans.)

So, what do we do about this? How much money is enough? Now there’s a nice, small issue for a football column! But, think about it. When asked how much money Howie Long thought he’d fetch in today’s double digit millions market he wisely responded, “More than I need.” Thank you, Howie. How about profit caps? If all those profiting from $500.00 seats and $45.00 T-shirts could dial it down a bit, more people could go to the games and buy the shirts. I don’t really expect this to happen, but wouldn’t it be refreshing?

Maybe Tom Benson could stop telling his team that they play like high-schoolers and downsize his Gulfstream: then a bunch of highschoolers and their parents could actually afford to go to the game. I can dream, right?

Believe it or not an almost-model franchise already exists: The Green Bay Packers. In another revolutionarily socialist setup this team is owned by the town they live in. How cool is that? Yeah, their players are still well-paid. They have a beautiful new stadium. And the team is an integral part of that community. Not coincidentally, they are also probably the quintessential American football team. They gave us Vince Lombardi, Reggie White’s Super Bowl win – and Brett Favre. The organization has a character of its own. And Americans love them. No matter where you go, there are Packers’ fans. Cheeseheads appear in every stadium in the country. Just ask the home teams as they scan stands full of yellow and green. Forget Dallas and sleazy Jerry Jones – this is America’s team!

So maybe Americans aren’t only about money and winning at all costs after all. We also love the underdog and the guy who won’t give up no matter what (think Favre again). The Cinderella Carolina Panthers swept the nation in 2003. We may reward naked ambition, but we also like to see the little guy succeed. Hollywood depends on it. It makes us feel good. Just as good as winning? It’s possible.

Sporting events are civilized war. Sometimes more civilized than other times but that’s another story. They represent the progress of humanity. Humans compete and fight to measure themselves against one another. It’s in our nature. So we’ve found one way to compete without impoverishing whole generations: sports.

Even at the height of the Cold War, no battles erupted during USA/USSR hockey games. Western society for years has used athletics to build character. The military academies are famous for their emphasis on sports training. At West Point, their philosophy is that many of the physical and emotional challenges experienced “on the fields of friendly strife” will be repeated in real life or real combat situations. How people learn to meet those challenges when fighting for a score will forge their character. Every coach from little league to the New England Patriots would agree with this theory.

But if we don’t stop glorifying winning no matter what and vilifying losing, we’re not getting the lesson. In an article entitled “Sometimes, A Game Means Much More Than the Score” John Feinstein wrote:

“One of the questions I am frequently asked is: “If you could only go to one event in sports every year, which one would it be? The answer to the question is simple:

Army-Navy. There’s just nothing like the Army-Navy football game. Not because of the quality of the football game, but because of the quality of the people playing the football game.”

And while we’re quoting people – just for the record Vince Lombardi did NOT say, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” What he SAID was:

“Winning isn’t everything – but wanting to win is.”

And that makes all the difference.

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