--Random House Dictionary
March Madness finally lets go this week after a month of water cooler talk and Internet chats and bracket blow outs and Facebook hurrahs. By this week’s end two national champions in college basketball, a men’s and a women’s team, will have been crowned the victors. THEY WON! “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!”, right? Just ask Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, the one who coined that most oft quoted of sports clichés.
What most people don’t know is that years later, near the end of his life, when asked about that nugget of gridiron and life wisdom, Lombardi completely repudiated it. "I wished I'd never said the thing...I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn't mean for people to crush human values and morality." The untold story of Lombardi’s life is that more than anything else, his faith in God most shaped his view of winning and losing. What most frustrated the coach was not a defeat. It was if his players did not play to their full God given gifts, did not play fair or play all out. Lombardi knew the one truth of sports which so often gets lost in our “win at all costs” sports culture. Winning is not everything.
I know that’s heresy to many a fanatical fan but consider what happens when winning is that which we demand the most on the playing field. Take Rutgers University men’s basketball head Mike Rice. He was fired last week after being caught on videotape physically and verbally abusing his players. Grabbing them by the collar and whipping them around. Throwing basketballs at their heads and bodies. Taunting them with homophobic slurs and why? Well to win, and at any cost, right?
Then there’s Grinnell College men’s basketball player Jack Taylor. Last November he set a new NCAA scoring record with 138 points versus tiny and way overmatched Faith Baptist Bible College. True grace and class in sports once held that teams and individuals held back in game blow outs, not wanting to shame or embarrass an overmatched opponent. But not Taylor, nor his coach, who played the young man the entire game, a Grinnell victory, 179-105. GO PIONEERS! They won!
No actually, they lost. And they lost big. Coach Rice, Jack Taylor, and any one else on fields and courts of competition (players, coaches, fans, and media): when we blindly worship winning at the cost of everything else, especially human character, we lose. We lose and not just a game but also as a culture.
Like it or not sports is a huge force for good and the not so good in our world. Thirty five million children and youth from the ages of 5 to 18 play competitive sports in our nation. Hundreds of thousands of student athletes play in college. Thousands compete in professional sports. Whereas sports was once a diversion in our country, best known for entertainment, physical fitness or just low key fun, in 2013 sports dominates all parts of life, from 24/7 ESPN, to tots playing soccer, weekends packed with games at every level, betting billions of dollars. A generation ago the church or a clergy person or a teacher might have had the greatest influence on young hearts and minds. Today that shaper of moral life is just as likely to be a coach or a flashy professional sports star. How we talk about winning and losing in sports matters.
To win at all costs? Well Jesus was pretty clear about this when he said, “What does it prophet a man to [win] the world but lose his soul?” Fast forward to a modern day sports prophet, UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach John Wooden, winner of ten NCAA championships, seven in a row. He’d worship the sports god of winning at any cost, right? Nope. As he concluded, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
So congrats to the NCAA champs but I hope we will remember that winning is not everything. Winning is not the only thing either. Winning, losing, playing: finally in sports and the game called life, the best win of all is character.