By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
August 26, 2016
Vince Lombardi was quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
That’s it. If you don’t win, the whole endeavor is a waste of time. With the Lombardi line of thinking there is no other reason to compete in sports.
I strongly disagree with that philosophy. The Lombardi mindset leads to the behaviors (cheating, taunting, cheap shots, fighting, belittling, etc.) that drive win-at-all-costs (WAAC)-based sports. And it’s that type of thinking and behavior that provides the foundation for Sport At Its Worst.
Sport At Its Best, on the other hand, isn’t a zero-sum game. Both sides can succeed, no matter what the scoreboard says.
I believe the healthiest – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – way to view sport is this: Winning isn’t everything, it’s just one thing.
Striving to win is an inherent part of competition, including athletic competition. Striving to win isn’t the problem in sports. It’s striving to win at all costs that’s the problem.
Winning, in the best sense, isn’t just about wins and losses. Nor is it just about an individual’s performance, or that of one’s team.
It reminds me of the saying, “If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.” In other words, there are so many positive benefits from sports participation that even if you are a lousy athlete and only rarely win on the scoreboard, it’s worth doing.
And sport participation has to be about more than just one’s needs and wants in order to be fulfilling. If sport is to be totally satisfying to the human spirit, and not just the ego, winning needs to have a communal good aspect to it.
Success in sports evolves out of true competition. True competition is a cooperative venture, in which all competitors give maximum effort, under a fair set of rules, toward a goal of excellence for all. By striving with our opponents vs. striving against them, a contest can have successful outcomes for both parties. Yes, only one side can win the game or match, but there are positives to be derived from sport no matter what side of the scoreboard one might end up on.
Sport At Its Best is not viewed as a battle against an enemy. It’s striving for excellence with an opponent, not striving against a hated adversary.
As David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier wrote in their outstanding book True Competition, excellence is about finding one’s personal boundaries. It doesn’t mean being better than someone else. It means being the best you can be, and one’s opponents help in achieving that goal.
Winning on the scoreboard, beating one’s competitors, can be a fool’s gold way of measuring one’s worth.
John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, fully appreciated the concept of true competition. As part of his famous “Pyramid of Success,” Wooden defined success this way: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction
in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”
There’s nothing about winning games, Olympic medals, or college athletic scholarships in that definition. There’s nothing about beating a hated enemy in that definition. For Wooden, succeeding as an athlete (or in life for that matter) is about giving maximum effort in an attempt to be the best you can be in a given endeavor.
A worthy and cooperative opponent helps in that quest for excellence.
CBS News’ Bob Schieffer once put it this way, “The great value of sport is that it teaches us to recognize the difference between winning and striving for excellence — the better, but much harder, achievement.”
Let’s go back to the Lombardi quote: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Would sport be as popular as it is today if winning was the only thing of value to be gained? What about having fun, enjoying camaraderie with teammates and opponents, and improving one’s health and overall wellness? What about developing self-discipline, and appreciating the value of hard work? How about learning the importance of sacrifice, teamwork, and goal setting? What about learning how to deal with adversity, the importance of proper preparation? Or, acting with courage and learning to be accountable for one’s actions? And, of course, there is the great value of sportsmanship, learning how to compete ethically.
The list of values associated with sports participation goes on from there. But one thing’s for sure: winning isn’t the only thing. It’s just one thing. It’s just one reason to get involved in sports.
Yes, at the professional level, winning has a higher value than it does at other levels but it’s still far from being the only thing of value.
Values-based sport is the antidote to a win-at-all-costs, profit-at-all-costs, out-of-control sports culture. It requires identifying the values that you stand for (as an individual, team and sports organization). Most importantly, it demands putting into place policies and procedures — a system, if you will — that will allow you to actually live those values. It also requires regularly analyzing your attitudes and behaviors and identifying those that result in win-at-all-costs (WAAC) mentalities and behaviors and then eliminating or modifying those.
Some will see this column as one about sports ethics. But to me it really comes down to ego vs. soul. Ego, and its ugly stepchild, greed, are at the root of win-at-all-costs policies, decisions and actions in sports. Soul (or, as some prefer, the human spirit), on the other hand, is at the core of sportsmanship, cooperative competition and true success.
In short: Sport at its best is driven by one’s soul. At its worst it’s driven by one’s ego.
The ego is always wrong and the soul is always right.
In sports as in life.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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