The personality traits of the “winner” are embedded within each and every American. It is a nation that survived and thrived against heavy odds. That legacy shapes many of the attitudes we have today about winning and losing.
The importance of winning has permeated our culture from the business world to professional sports to local youth soccer leagues. The drive to win is necessary both for our survival and for our continued pursuit of excellence. Excellence, in turn, benefits society as a whole. This is why the drive to win has an important role in our society.
A worthy goal for society is to create an atmosphere where the drive to win not only co-exists with fair play and sportsmanship but also works in tandem with them. The reality is that one does not negate the other. Winning and fair play/sportsmanship can actually enhance each other. In that sort of environment we all win.
According to Peck “It is wrong to regard any other human being as, a priori, as an object or an it” (1993). The early European colonists who came to America recognized this. Eventually, the concept of individual rights was codified into the Constitution. Even though each individual settler was driven to get their “piece of the pie”, they understood that cooperation would also always be necessary.
At the same time there is a reality that each individual must face. Engh writes that “Winning is what we all must do throughout life to succeed…” (2002). Fair play and consideration for others can’t always be accommodated in the reality of everyday life.
Sports are a metaphor for life. The importance placed on winning is just a reflection of society as a whole. Those who win consistently in sports, career and life reap the lion’s share of society’s rewards. Since these rewards are not infinite in supply; there will always be stiff competition over them. That is the way society is designed. As a nation that design has served us well.
Even though most people, if asked, would see sportsmanship, fair play and ethics as good qualities; our society sends mixed messages. Individualistic, selfish behavior is often rewarded. Athletes and businessmen who cut corners to make it to the top are often portrayed as heroes.
Sometimes sportsmanship can actually endanger all those involved. If an athlete in the heat of competition is distracted by thoughts of sportsmanship, injuries can result. As one young athlete put it “The football field is no place to think about ethics” (Canadian Centres Teaching Peace, 2008). Ethics come in the rule making process for the game.
The game is meant to be won or lost. Vince Lombardi, the successful Green Bay Packers coach of the 1960s once said that “Winning isn’t every thing. It’s the only thing”. His phrase not only motivated the Packers to excellence; it also inspired the American culture. The statement tapped into a feeling that lay deep in the American psyche.
Fair Play and Sportsmanship
Winning is not a bad thing. Too often, it has been portrayed this way. It does not have to be synonymous with greed or the wiliness to indulge in unethical behavior to win. Winning has an important role in continuing a societal pursuit of excellence. Without this pursuit the culture would become stagnant and ultimately die.
It is true that that the preset rules of the game, whatever it may be, do much to govern the activity and encourage fair play. There is a higher value to winning than just the superficial, though. Engh writes that “The very values we can learn through organized sports – things such as ethics, fair play and sportsmanship – are the lessons that will guide us to be the best we can in life” (2002).
Winning unethically or without respect for the opponent in sports can lead to a downward process for the winner. The harm to the “losers” in this scenario is obvious. The harm to the “winner” may be just as great in the long run. Delany states that:
When someone decides to justify certain behavior in an attempt to
gain an edge over an opponent, they are likely to engage in other
deviant action. (2003)
Fair play and sportsmanship have important societal roles to play. These traits are just as ingrained in human beings as the drive to win. An example of this can be seen in a recent well-publicized incident at a women’s college softball game.
Having hit what appeared to be a game-winning home run; a player was injured and unable to make her way around the bases. If her teammates helped her in any way the run would be disallowed. Instead two players from the opposing team carried her around the bases, allowing her to touch each as they went by.
The public reaction to this incident of pure sportsmanship is telling. The young women were honored repeatedly and appeared on national talk shows. Could it be that sportsmanship and fair play are themselves forms of winning?
A Meeting of the Minds
Winning without honor can only bring a shallow happiness. It also invites others to treat the “winner” in the same way. Many of the human rewards that come along with winning are lost when the winning is done by cheating. The winner may obtain the rewards of winning but without the true fulfillment winning a fair and sportsmanlike competition brings.
Sports can be a good arena for nurturing qualities of future success in children. At the same time, it can be taken too far. Winning is important because it is both a process of self motivation and of cooperation. Sports teach a structure that we all need to know in order to succeed in later life. Learning how to win is a process, as is learning how to lose and how to be sportsmanlike.
For kids, the pressure of a win-at-all-costs mentality often does not create the desired result. Focused, successful individuals are the exception to the rule. Often this pressure is a distraction rather than an encouragement to focus. Parents who see other parents encouraging a “win at all costs attitude” often feel pressured to do the same with their kids. The result is often not what they had hoped for. In fact, “The likelihood is that the experience will turn a lot of these kids off to organized sports participation” (Engh, 2002).
In sports and in life there is teamwork all along the way. Individual winning never comes without the support and assistance of a host of others including parents, friends, co-workers, teammates and even opponents. All of these individuals learn from each other in some way. When the competition in question is fair and characterized by sportsmanship, the winner actually enhances his chances of winning again.
Winning unethically short-cuts the learning process. In that sense the non-sportsmanlike or unethical winner is only hurting himself. These behaviors also expose the winner to similar behavior directed his way. The only difference is that this time society will fully legitimize the behavior because the winner brought it upon himself.
The Packers of Vince Lombardi were universally respected winners. They were a team of individuals, each striving to perform his task to the best of his ability. As a team they played fairly and with good sportsmanship – and each man reaped the rewards.
Finding a balance between “winning is the only thing” and fair play and sportsmanship is a worthy goal for society. All of the skills involved in finding this balance are necessary for ultimate success in life.
In many ways sport is “a microcosm of society” (Delaney, 2003). As such it reveals the problems as well as the promise of society. It reflects the ideals we find important as a culture.
Winning is good. There is more than one way to win. Winning is also a continual process, not just any one game or event. Yes, our society rewards and glorifies individual achievement, even when the achievement was gained by ethically questionable means.
The picture is more complicated.
People who win at all costs often pay a heavy price. Most of us will never be in the position of those we see portrayed as winners on television and in the media. Therefore it is easy to ignore the consequences these people face for unethical behavior. They range from criminal involvement to depression to the lack of trusted friends and family.
For some, this will be a fair tradeoff for winning in the superficial sense.
Most of us need a wider definition of winning. Competition of any kind will never be fully ethical and completely sportsmanlike. It is the effort to be this way that counts. This distinguishes the true winner from the superficial one.
Ultimately our society is a large team of many individuals. It is dependent both on the individual pursuit of success and a certain level of teamwork. The practice of sportsmanship does not harm the pursuit of either element. Instead, it enhances both.
Shortly before his death the legendary coach Lombardi said “I wish I had never said damned [winning is the only thing] thing. I meant the effort…having a goal… [not] for people to crush human values and morality (Reinharz & Anderson, 2000).
Business Week. (2006). “Yes, Winning is Still the Only Thing”. Retrieved 5/14/2008
Canadian Centres Teaching Peace. (2008). “Sports: When Winning is the Only Thing can
Violence be Far Away?” Retrieved 5/14/2008 from: http://www.peace.ca/sports.htm .
Delany, Tim. (2003). “Sports and Deviant Behavior”. Philosophy Now. Retrieved
5/14/2008 from: http://www.philosophynow.org/issue41/41delany.htm .
Engh, Fred. (2002). Why Johnny Hates Sports. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Square One
Peck, M. Scott. (1993). A World Waiting to be Born: Rediscovering Civility. New York:
Reinharz, Peter; Anderson, Brian. (2000). “Bring Back Sportsmanship”. City Journal
(NY). Spr, pp. 1-6.