February 2, 2011

Why Winning Matters

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With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, football enthusiasts may find themselves reminiscing about the glorious histories of both  of these franchises: the Steelers with their NFL-record six Super Bowl wins, and the Packers with their NFL-record twelve league championships — including three Super Bowls — dating back to the days before the AFL-NFL merger. Both franchises are esteemed for their winning traditions. The Packers also have the unique honor of winning the first two Super Bowls, in 1966 and 1967. And what better coach to have led the Packers to these two victories than the coach who perhaps personifies winning more than any other coach in American professional sports history: Vince Lombardi. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” Lombardi once said.

Ever since then, the quote has become representative of the primacy of winning in sports. It is an attitude that goes back to at least 5th century B.C.E. Greece where the ideal of the “agonal” man was highly prized. The “agonal” man was one who struggled for victory in a contest whether it was in music, poetry, battle or, of course, athletics. The Greek word “agon” or struggle is where we get the word agony — the excruciating pain which is often part of a struggle. The “agonal” man was certainly not far from the minds of the producers of ABC’s Wide World of Sports whose signature tagline informed viewers that they sought to bring them not only the “thrill of victory,” but the “agony of defeat.”

In a sense, the “agon” and the agony of defeat seem to be pointing to something more important than victory: the struggle itself. Yes, the struggle is important, but you struggle in order to win. “You play to win the game” as Herm Edwards so eloquently said. There can be no victory without a struggle. There can be no victory without somebody else losing. Hence the agony of defeat is but an extension of the excruciating pain of the “agon” for the loser.

So what’s the point of winning? There must some point besides the vain desire to collect accolades, honors, and awards. Well, it primarily has to do with the idea of being the best. The ancient Greeks were also very much concerned with the “best” man. The best men were what made society great. This is why the aristocracy was so highly-valued. Aristocracy, or rule by the “best” men, was widely considered to be the best form of government, not democracy. Only the Athenians were crazy enough to think that for a couple hundred years, but even they valued the best men and loved competition and winning. It was through competition that the best men would emerge.

Looking at our world today, competition is still highly valued as a means of bringing out the best in people. It is that crucible through which the best emerges. Sports are a microcosm of society. That is the beauty of sport. In the arena, the court, the field, or wherever else the competition is held, a contest  between equals can be fairly waged through which the victor can claim the immense joy of being the best and the spectator can be an audience to greatness. In a world full of uneven playing fields, sports claims to offer everyone an equal playing field to determine the best. And when it is found out that the playing field isn’t so equal and fair, when the integrity of a sport is in question, there is understandable outrage

Sport is not about merely trying your best. It is about trying your best in order to win, and when you don’t, there is agony. There is no consolation in knowing that you tried your best. The consolation comes from knowing that at least you are better than a few others. And if you finished last, then perhaps you are better than those who did not compete. You play to be the best, otherwise it is merely recreation.

As for spectators, watching a competition, especially a championship, is all about watching the best, about witnessing greatness. Everyone wants to see a great, tough matchup which brings out the best in both competitors. Nobody likes to see blowouts or ties. This is why winning matters. So this Sunday I look forward to watching two of the best franchises in NFL history compete to determine the best NFL team this season, and hopefully witness something great.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo