Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Virtue of Losing

Whether we like it or not, most of the valuable lessons we learn in life come from learning from our mistakes, including from the times we lose something we have highly valued. If we are forever protected from falling, we never learn how to stand on our own two feet. I was reminded of this truth while watching the semi-final rounds of the Final Four basketball a while back. There was Coach K of the Blue Devils at the end of the game acting like a petulant child screaming at the refs—“you killed us, you killed us, you killed us.” Winning had so become the all consuming passion of the moment that the Coach lost it. He had forgotten how heroically his senior point guard Chris Duhon had played in the last several games of the tournament. He had forgotten how it was his decision to leave his premiere low post players Williams and then Randolph in the game while Connecticut’s Coach Calhoun had benched the best player in the game Emeka Okafor for most of the game due to fouls and brought him in the for crucial stretch run. Coach K had overlooked that it was his players, not the referees who took the final shots that went awry, and when J.J. Reddick barreled into the lane like a bowling ball bouncing off of ten pens and was stripped of the ball, he blamed the refs for not calling the foul. Of course he was silent when the other team also did not get such calls in the last five minutes of the game. The Duke basketball program is supposed to beone of the true Cadillac programs in the country. But it too all too often seems to operate on the same principle as so many other schools, the Lombardi principle-- “winning is not everything, it is the only thing”. I say this with shame, since I love Duke University and have both attended the school and have taught there as well. You don’t hear many coaches anymore who say “its not whether you win or lose, its how you play the game”. No the mantra today is, “just win baby”. We are the poorer for this cultural shift.

Frankly, as much as I love watching sports, this ruthless drive in America for winning which runs over principles and good persons and even the rules of the game and grinds them into the dust has made me ashamed of my own passion for sports. When winning can be bought in professional sports, ala the Yankees who every year stack the deck in their favor, then its not worth very much. When home run records can be obtained through the use of steroids, then they are not worth very much. Its no different than when a politician buys an election.

But what is even more sickening is to watch the ‘professionalization’ of amateur athletics. I get physically sick when I think of college alumni and booster clubs pressuring their institutions to hire or fire this or that coach, or to recruit this or that athlete no matter whether they have the academic acumen to be in college or not. I grow weary of the cheapening of an academic institution through its process of prostituting itself so it can have a winning sports team.

Let me offer a case in point from my own much loved college alma mater—UNC-Chapel Hill, the oldest state University in the country. Frankly, the way we treated Matt Doherty, unless I am missing something, was worse than shameful. When players can force the firing of a coach without even giving the man a second chance, there is no ethical integrity in that. This decision stands in stark contrast to the recent noble decision to allow those without the financial means to attend Carolina tuition free. The latter shows that it isn’t just all about the money, there are ethical principles involved. The former suggests that indeed it is all about winning and the ephemeral glory and money that comes with that. I would urge my alma mater to not be schizophrenic and be its best self even when it comes to the high pressure arena of college basketball. But now that we have won the brass ring in 2005 will the pressue to 'just win baby' be any less of Coach Williams and his team, even though they lost their top seven players to graduation or the NBA draft. I think not.

Long ago, when I was still in junior high school and was playing basketball I attended Dean Smith’s summer basketball camp. I learned the fine art of free throwing from Charlie Scott, and did wind sprints until I dropped courtesy of Eddie Fogler. But what really impressed me was how Coach Smith treated us all with respect, this same coach who had helped integrate the restaurants in Chapel Hill and who had brought Charlie Scott to our school despite a firestorm of criticism.

What impressed me most about Coach Smith was his ethical integrity and his primary commitment to what was best for the players and for the school, rather than putting winning first. What impressed me most is that Coach Smith knew that we all have a God to answer to, and therefore ethical integrity matters most of all. He knew and he taught us that there is far more glory in losing with honest hard effort than in winning by dirty play or through some chicanery involved in the recruiting process.
I long for the day when we will understand what real glory is. Real glory didn’t show up when Jim Valvano won his miraculous and wonderful national championship in 1983. Real glory showed up when he had the courage to take his message about cancer to the streets, even when he was dying and to tell us all we should never give up, and that after all---loving, and laughing and crying and caring about one’s family are far more important things than the world’s definitions of winning. Jim Valvano went out a winner in God’s eyes because of how he responded to the cancer in his life.

I long for a day where ESPN will stop glorifying the huge salaries players make and spend far more time reporting that which tends towards virtue in the games we play. I long for a day when college coaches will resign before they will knuckle under to the pressure from booster clubs and others to engage in immoral practices to lure players to their schools, and when they will not turn a blind eye to the immoral practices of their players and boosters as in the recent scandal in Colorado. I long for the day when no college player will be eligible for the pro-draft before spending at least three years in college, and so being within sight of their diploma.

I long for the day when we stop sending all the wrong messages to our impressionable children by allowing the peddling of various drugs—whether tobacco, or alcohol, or steroids or the like in the advertising associated with sports.

In this summer season with more and more revelations about steroids in baseball and the pouting of Terrell Owens about respect and money (this from a man making millions a year for playing football),I am reminded that Jesus’ definition of glory, was laying down his life for others, sacrificing so others might have life, and love and joy and much else that was good. To the world it appeared that Jesus was a big loser. After all, he died on a cross, the most humiliating and public way to be shamed in antiquity. The truth is, that self-sacrifice, and living a life of integrity have far more to do with glory than self-indulgence, self-gratification, or self-glorification.

Since we are an entertainment obsessed culture, it would be a good thing if we did a better job of modeling real life virtues in public, particularly in our sporting events. Maybe then we would realize that fame is fleeting and is an imposter, but having a good name is far more important. Maybe then we would realize the virtue of losing is much to be preferred to the losing of virtue, which sadly is all too often what we see in sports these days. Maybe then we would realize that life has a way of humbling all of us, and losing is one of the ways God uses to deflate and defuse overweening human pride, and this frankly, in an age of hype and hyperbole, and rhetoric and bombast is a very good thing indeed.


Clay Knick said...



Why not send this to Sports

Word Merchant
Tar Heel Fan

GL said...

May God defuse and deflate the overweening pride of the Tar Heels. :)

Ted Gossard said...

Yes. It is a gripping disease on us, this passion for winning.

I am a Buckeye fan, though I much better control that passion most of the time (harder during Michigan week).

An entirely different ethic should be descriptive of us as followers of our Lord.

I would withdraw in more than one way. But I'm not sure that disengagement really means change into cruiform Christlikeness.