So now we have the brouhaha over how much punishment – if any – should be given to the New England Patriots for using underinflated footballs during the AFC Championship game. It’s been proven that they did it, even if Head Coach Bill Belichick says he knew nothing about it (of course, no one believes him because he’s been caught cheating in the past).
My take on the hoopla is that yes, they did cheat and that Belichick does condone cheating (whether he knew the particulars of this cheat is incidental). But the saddest thing is that there was absolutely no need for cheating in the first place. Still, nothing of significance will come of it because while there is lip service as to the fairness of the game, the bottom line is that in sports, especially in the megalomania and egoism that is professional sports, winning is everything.
Winning has become so important that cheating now is taken as part of the game. Get away with what you can. Spy on your opponents. Give incentive to take opponents out of the game by intentionally attempting to inflict injury. Incite the crowds, up the attitude, celebrate viciousness, egg on vindictiveness. Fake injury, use flopping as a strategy. Taunt. Trash talk. Showboat. Late hits, illegal hits, hits to the head. Take performance enhancing drugs, take steroids, do anything that gives you the edge.
And it’s not just the players, it’s the fans, too. If my team is cheating, if my team is strutting, if my team is playing dirty (I’d probably call it “aggressive”), it’s okay; but if it’s your team doing it, then your team and everything associated with your team is scum. If my team gets called out, then everyone pointing a finger or meting out laughable “punishment” to my poor, beleaguered team and its saintly staff is scum. If my team loses, then the refs are blind or the umpires are partial in their calls, or else the players themselves choked, they let us down, they blew it, the scum. Fire the head coach! Off with his head! And if your team loses – suckers! Losers! And it’s not just football. It’s basketball and racing and hockey and even my beloved baseball. And it’s not just professional sports, although those are the most rabid of cases (even though college sports are also pretty tainted, and even high school sports are getting worse).
What gets lost in all this attitude and hype and strutting and chest puffery is the game. It’s no longer about the game, it’s no longer about how you play the game, it’s about one thing: winning.
And if you don’t win, you’re a loser, and there’s nothing worse than a loser.
Don’t get me wrong – winning’s great. Winning is an incredible high, it’s truly hitting the summit of accomplishment. It should always be a goal that a team or an individual contestant strives for. But does winning really need to be the sole end-all of participating in a sport? Even at the professional level?
It certainly is if you listen to the media. For them, outside of the occasional “feel good” story, it’s all about winning. I won’t watch the sports broadcasts on my local television station because the anchors are so negative if the team of the moment isn’t winning. When my beloved Twins are playing – over 150 games in a season, mind you – if they are on a losing streak, or if it looks like they will end up with more losses than wins in a season, then they are worthless. Worthless! They can do nothing right in the eyes of the sportscasters, no matter how well they played in the field, no matter how entertaining the game was – if they didn’t win, then they are worthy of nothing but scathing remarks, demeaning comments, and outright scorn. And if more than one sports team is on a losing streak? Well, we all should just pack it in because we’re saddled with such pathetic ineptness bringing shame to our fair city.
After all, with losing as failure, and with only one team able to be on top, that leaves many, many other teams as failures so it’s easy to see why in this environment, sports has become bogged down in negativity. And since so many people live vicariously though, or associate strongly with their sports teams, then that negativity is going to spill over and flourish.
I can understand why some folks feel that the solution for this, especially with youngsters just going into sports, is to reward every kid for trying, for participation. Everyone gets a trophy, everyone gets a ribbon, so as to not wound the tender psyches of the kids who aren’t as gifted as the others. But I do not agree with this sentiment, in fact, I think it’s utter bull-hockey. It only reinforces the “winning is everything” ethos, just as strongly as taunting the losing side does. Rewarding everyone still focuses on the end goal of playing a sport being winning – not the enjoyment of it, not the benefits of participating, not on heart, not on drive, not on having friggin’ fun. On winning.
Sure, losing isn’t great. Having three athletes get medals and the rest only handshakes can be tough, especially if you’re the one who came in 4th. But if you’re running the race just to have a chest full of accolades, then you’re really missing out on what it is to participate in a sport. If all you want is a tangible reward, then unless you have a butt load of natural talent, you’re not going to have fun.
After all, “fun” is not interchangeable with “easy”. Nor should it be. I was a competitive distance runner in school, and was pretty good at it. Not professional level good, or even state level good (I did go to the state meet once – it was surreal and breathtaking and scary), but good for my school and conference. And yes, it was dang fun to have a chest full of metals clinking on my letter jacket, and it was darned nice to know I had a reputation as one to beat amongst other runners and coaches.
But that wasn’t why I ran; that was just gravy on the biscuit. I ran because of how it made me feel, the way it made me push myself physically and mentally, how it made me tough and strong and able to endure setbacks and challenges. I ran because of the quiet of the early morning training runs along country roads where it was only me and the cows and the smell of freshly turned black dirt, because of the incredible rush of “breaking through the wall”, because of the support of my teammates, the guidance and wisdom of my coaches, the pride of my parents. The way it allowed me to believe in myself, win or lose.
But it was hard. It was incredibly hard. “If you can walk away from the race that easy, then you haven’t raced hard enough!” my coaches would say. So I learned to give it everything I had. To have nothing left once you’ve crossed that finish line. To feel my breath on fire, my legs burn, my lungs cramp, and yet force myself to relax and move smoothly as everything I had was focused, focused, focused on that finish line…
And yet, it was fun, incredibly fun. It was fun to be in such good shape. It was fun to be able to run for miles. It was fun to feel a part of a team, to be appreciated by coaches and teammates (even when I didn’t win). And it was fun to know that even though the finish line was a long way off, and even though there was this big ole’ honking wall in the way, that I could do it – that I could win, not by crossing the finish line first, but by crossing the damn finish line at all. By giving it all I had.
Yes, it was fun to win. But it was even more fun to run.
This year, sure, I’d love it if my Twins win the World Series. But if they play well, if I enjoy being at their games, if they allow me to revel in the game of baseball, then they are winners in my opinion, regardless of the final score. I’d rather support a losing team than one who utilizes an environment where cheating is an acceptable page in the playbook just because “if you don’t cheat, you don’t care enough to win”. I’d rather support a losing team than one who looks the other way as their players violate policies or seek out unfair advantage, or who gives tacit approval to intimidation, brutality, degradation in the guise of their being “tough” or “competitive”. Where the end always justifies the means. Where the game has become secondary to the number of ticks in the “Win” column.
The Patriots can keep their deflated balls, or whatever they come up with to give themselves an advantage, and justify it by calling it just part of playing the game or deflecting by saying that everyone does it. It doesn’t matter – they’ve already lost in my book. Oh, they may win the game, but they failed at football, because it’s about so much more than just winning, and they don’t seem to understand that. But then, I guess it’s hard to see past all the swirling confetti.