A basic Sci-Fi-Horror scenario involves a crazy but very competent biologist fiddling around with some minor creatures, say, a jar fun of pissants. Eventually they turn into major monsters mat proliferate and do great mischief. In real life this can happen to words. Commentators and pundits seize on a previously modest little noun or adjective and massage it until it becomes gigantic and ubiquitous. These creations are called buzzwords, and they tend to be inflated until they can mean almost anything a user wants them to. By way of example we have: organic, ecological, all-natural, sensitivity, high tech and, now, competition.
According to traditional usage, competition identifies a situation in which two or more people vie for a prize, honor or advantage. However, since it has become a 36-foot-tall pissant of a word, various authorities are suggesting that competition is importantly, connected with what should or should not be done about the balance of trade, oil taxes, dependent mothers, Nicaragua, public schools and the Democratic National Convention. John Thompson, the highly successful Georgetown basketball coach, summed up a lot of fashionable thinking when he remarked, "Life is about competition."
The fuss over competition is a revival of some older conceits about the survival of the fittest and the laws of the jungle. The idea is that competition is the behavioral equivalent of gravity, a force that makes the world go 'round—the point being that life is shaped by individuals and species continually battling one another for food, space, sex and various luxury items. In the process, goes the theory, the minds and bodies of some individuals or species are greatly improved, and they become winners. The less able or less lucky—the dinosaur, the dusky seaside sparrow—are eliminated like early losers in a tennis tournament. With regard to the human species and its internecine struggles, this is called social Darwinism.
Indeed, it all sounds as if it has a lot to do with the realities of evolution and zoology, but it does not. The trouble with the theory of direct, unrelenting competition as a long-range force in nature is that such a scheme always has fewer winners than losers. Thus the win-or-drop-dead, tennis-tournament model of evolution is at odds with the fact that, through the aeons, life-forms on Earth have become increasingly numerous and various. The multitude of species reflects the evolutionary drive to find a small edge—a niche zoologists call it—that enables creatures to go about their business without always fighting with others with the same appetites.
Humans have long had a high regard for niches, which allow us to occupy positions in which competition is completely eliminated or greatly reduced. To this end we have invented such things as tariffs, tenure, the American Medical Association and monopolies. A prominent college football coach once explained the attraction of monopolies in relation to the recruiting policies of his school: "We don't want just enough good football players. We want them all If I have the six best quarterbacks in this great republic tied down at my school anyone I play against will be going with no better than the seventh best. You follow my meaning?"
Good monopolies, however, are easier to fantasize about than to find. As a practical matter, cooperation is the tactic most commonly used to get what we want. Groups of people agree to divvy up desirable things, just as other species do natural resources and the NFL does draft picks. Individuals may not get everything they yearn for, but few are shut out completely. As a matter of historical record, many of the most notable human accomplishments—cathedrals, constitutions, college athletic departments—are monuments to cooperative behavior. So, while we may in principle praise the virtues and joys of head-on competition, we are much less enthusiastic about it in practice. Getting what we want by taking it from somebody else in an overt contest is usually for us, as for other species, a last resort.
Therefore a good argument can be made that life is mostly about avoiding competition. If this is so, then competitive sports jump out not only as a remarkable exception but also as a singular, perhaps definitive, human activity. Here we have something that we have little stomach for in serious, imperative situations but dote on as a leisure pursuit. An obvious question is, Why? Nobody claims to know with certainty, but there are many interesting theories.
Some behaviorists speculate that all creatures are driven by two basic, often incompatible, urges—to be secure and to be stimulated. Much of our energy is devoted to trying to make our lives safe, comfortable and predictable. However, security can bore us, so, as an antidote, we seek challenge, risk and suspense. But stimulation is intrinsically dangerous, and when things get too sticky, we scuttle back to security. Hence we keep bouncing back and forth between these poles of desire.
Some see competitive sports as a marvelously ingenious solution to this dilemma. Sporting contests are stimulating by their very nature, but at the same time, they begin and end by agreement, as struggles over bloody bones seldom do. Moreover, sports lend themselves to handicapping, whereby participants can be mixed and matched on the basis of age, sex and size, among other factors. This makes competitive games less dangerous and increases the number of winners. Most important, according to this view, the rewards and risks of sport are symbolic—or were, at least, until the recent era of runaway remuneration—and do not threaten our genuine security or survival.
A related theory holds that sports are valuable as easy-to-perform psychodramas. In them we can act out our primeval aggressions and confrontational desires, thus making us less likely in real life to use clubs to obtain meals or mates. This theory, of course, is not universally accepted. Some authorities believe that we learn in competitive games to be more, rather than less, ornery.