What We Lose When We Win
The image I will remember most from the 2010 World Cup is Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk pulling off his silver medal in disgust as soon as he left the podium. Welcome to a brave new world where winning is everything and losing a soccer match is more serious than exposing yourself as a petulant child in front of two billion people.
When I was a boy I was intrigued by Archie Manning, one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks who played for its worst team, the New Orleans Saints. Season after season good ole’ Archie would be pummeled by defensive ends and Linebackers who came charging through his porous offensive line to maul him into the gridiron. Never one to complain, Manning took the beating and continued to clock up impressive stats year after year, even as his team continued to lose.
Why stay with a team so awful that its fans wore brown paper bags over their heads? Why not be traded to a team that had a chance? I never found the answer to that question. But after Arching Manning retired two of his sons followed him into the NFL and became two of its greatest quarterbacks with his eldest son, Peyton, ranking as perhaps the greatest of all time.
Only a father who is truly his sons’ hero can inspire them to follow so fully in his footsteps and only a father who has displayed such enormous loyalty and dedication can raise children who, amid being rich and famous, are widely regarded as possessed of high character. So maybe old Archie got his reward in the end after all. Not a Super Bowl but two sons who won Super Bowls and who are models of sportsmen as gentlemen. This is the reward that character, rather than a championship, can bestow.
It’s a lesson that Lebron James, who clearly bought into the ‘winning is everything’ mindset, ought to take to heart. When James dumped Cleveland this week – without the courtesy of even informing the team directly – in order to artificially manufacture a championship team with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh at the Miami Heat, he demonstrated that what really counts in sports is not character but victory, not loyalty but success.
Yes, we all want to win, and no, none of us enjoy losing. But the price we’re prepared to pay for our victories is that which will determine our essential character.
Everywhere you look in sports today character is second to victory. I’m an avid cyclist and experience few joys like getting on my bike and getting out into nature. What a pity then that so many professional cyclists have ruined the sport through doping in the belief that crossing the finish line first trumps putting principles first.
It started, of course, with baseball, where players trade teams as easily as kids trade baseball cards. Every player is up for grabs to the highest bidder. In baseball team loyalty is almost nonexistent. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the sport suffered the worst of the doping scandals.
But since sports aren’t the most important thing in life, why should any this matter? Because it’s indicative of a culture that puts winning above everything.
In today’s business world the biggest winners of all are no longer the doctors or lawyers but Wall Street investment bankers who make all other professionals appear like losers by comparison. On Wall Street if you’re not in the ranks of the super-wealthy, earning tens of millions of dollars a year, you’re a failure who can only gawk in awe at the masters of the Universe who run multi-billion dollar hedge funds. No wonder then that so many on Wall Street took irresponsible risks in order to have the paydays that would take them into the highest echelons. The fact that their risk was paid for by our tax dollars did not much matter. Remember, it’s success at any cost.
The winning is everything ethos trickles down to an increasingly rancid and shallow media culture where newspapers and TV rely on shallow Hollywood gossip to boost ratings even as all this nonsense makes the American audience dumber and dumber. It then trickles down even further to vulnerable teenagers whose first desire is to simply be famous, however that might happen.
Want to know why kids cheat at school? Come now. Is that a serious question? How different are they to the rest of us who employ a win-at-any-cost model.
But there is hope among the youth who are, as yet, not as cynical as we adults. The New York Times reported this week that Miley Cyrus has rapidly dropped in popularity by twenty percentage points among girls because of her new hyper-sexualized image, which includes a video of her giving a lap dance to a 44-year-old director and appearing seemingly nude, covered only by a sheet in Vanity Fair. Likewise, her new album ‘Can’t Be Tamed’ has cratered, selling 72% less than her previous album which sported a more wholesome female image.
Which just goes to show you. Not all kids will applaud success at any cost.