“There’s more to sports than winning.” “It’s not about winning and losing.” “Winning isn’t the most important thing.”
Those types of platitudes surround sports today, especially youth sports. And I have to admit:
I don’t understand them.
If you’re playing a competitive sport, you’re playing to win. That is the only substantive good that runs through all competition: baseball, cross-country, checkers, bass fishing, NASCAR, beer pong, poker. Winning. That’s the point of competition.
Does that mean that competitive sports don’t have other benefits? Of course not. Some (track) get you into shape, others (chess) help your ability to concentrate, some (poker) make you money, some (beer pong) get you buzzed. Every form of competition (except maybe NASCAR) has an ancillary benefit, but it’s not a benefit that’s necessary to the pursuit of competition in general. Such benefits are what the Schoolmen might call “accidents” of competition.
Accidents aren’t substances. When it comes to competitive sports, winning is the form that makes competition what it is. It is the essence of competition. If you’re not playing to win, you’re denying the core nature of competition, and it’s no longer competition. If you don’t want to play to win, that’s fine. Take up knitting or walking a treadmill . . . but get off the daggone track.
Now, does all this mean that winning is the most important thing?
Maybe. It depends what you mean by “most important.”
On the plane of competition, yes, winning is the most important thing. Hands down. It’s illogical to claim otherwise, for the reasons set forth above.
But on the plane of existence in general? Is winning the most important thing? Of course not. Don’t be a fool.
Here’s the thing people don’t seem to understand. There are planes of goods and activities. There are higher planes, and there are lower planes.
Sports is a lower plane. In fact, it’s one of the lowest. Without even trying, I can spout off a dozen higher planes of activities: praying, striving for sainthood, being a good Christian in general, serving, being a good husband or father or son or brother or friend, staying healthy, practicing the four cardinal virtues, study, writing. Even earning money is a higher plane (planes’ elevations can shift, incidentally, depending on your station in life and age, and the planes overlap, but that’s going beyond the scope of this piece).
The cardinal rule: Never sacrifice the goals of a higher plane for the goals of a lower plane. The temptation to do otherwise is the old Theophilus/Faustian bargain: Selling your soul (the highest good) for money and success (lower goods).
When it comes to sports, you shouldn’t cheat to win because you’d be sacrificing higher planes of activity (e.g., the obligation of truthfulness) for the goal of a lower plane. You shouldn’t grow glum when you lose, because that means you’ve lost your vision of the higher things in life.
Ersatz Instruction and the Culture of Moral Morons
This whole meditation got me thinking: Why do so many people toss around platitudes like “Winning isn’t everything”? If the person is saying that there are more important things than winning when it comes to that low plane of sporting competition, he’s wrong. If the person is talking about winning compared to, say, being a good father or neighbor, the point is so obvious that it doesn’t merit mentioning (what’s next, you want to tell me fire is hot?).
Either way, it’s a stupid thing to say.
Yet I hear it all the time, and I think a lot of people mean it. They obviously haven’t thought it through, but that doesn’t exonerate their palaver.
But the palaver might be understandable.
Sports might be the only arena where morality can be taught today. Public schools have taken over all areas of youth formation, but the public schools (for a variety of reasons that go beyond the scope of this piece) are poor places to teach morality. Talk about morality and virtue in the classroom and you’ll hear snickers . . . and maybe get a summons from the ACLU.
Sports, though, might (might) offer a pale imitation of moral formation.
Through sports, you can build a kid’s character and make him tough, and thereby indirectly show that, on the plane of existence, virtue is important. You can teach a kid that life goes on even if he loses, and therefore downturns aren’t disastrous. Through sports, a kid comes to realize that behaving like a jackass sticks in the heart longer than winning a trophy, and thereby the kid learns that the means are more important than the ends. A child might learn that practice results in victories, and he thereby learns the importance of sacrifice.
These are good things. These are things sports can help instill.
And in a culture where such things can’t be taught through philosophy and theology, it might be all we have left. It’s our ersatz moral formation. It’s a poor substitute, but it might be the only substitute we have left on the mass society level.
But rest assured: It doesn’t excuse adults who earnestly implore in the heat of competition, “Winning isn’t everything.” In competition, winning is the only thing . . . the only essential thing.
Those who say “it’s not the most important thing” mean well.
They don’t think well.