Ideally, sport exalts fair play: You win only when you've made a superior effort, not because you've found a way to circumvent the rules. Games are meant to be waged in the open, according to the rules and firm standards of conduct. "Sport's the only place we have left where we can start even," says Alabama Football Coach Bear Bryant. At least, that's how it's supposed to be.
The vernacular of achievement in all areas of our culture is studded with references to athletics: "team man." "second effort" and so forth. And competitive sport tells us that it's O.K. to win. Even important to win. Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, the president of Yale, says that winning in sports has "a joy and discrete purity to it that cannot be replaced by anything else." It is, he says, "something powerful, indeed beautiful, in itself; something as necessary to the strong spirit as striving is necessary to the healthy character."
But sport has told us it's O.K. to lose, too. That vital message seems somehow to have been lost. In team sports in America today, losing is no longer acceptable. There is a fanatical drive to win. Not for the Gipper or Old Blue. But for the gate receipts and TV money. And while you're at it, you'd better be one of the stars; if you warm the bench, if you merely try hard, you're a nobody, maybe even in the eyes of dear ol' Dad. Jim Lynch, the former Notre Dame and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, recently was introduced to the father of a K.C. rookie. Lynch told the father that he didn't know his son personally but that he'd heard nice things about the young man, that the son was well thought of by the Chiefs. The father was contemptuous. "He's not starting, is he?" he said to Lynch. "He's not Number 1. That's what it's all about, isn't it?" Lynch walked away, relieved that the man was not his father.
Sports, of course, reflect the society in which they're played. To expect them to be pristine in the era of Watergate, illegal corporate payments to foreign governments, Abscam and the like would be illogical. In fact, team competition, once so highly regarded as a positive force in the lives of the young, may now be a negative factor.
Competition is, of course, good, even essential for the individual and society. It provides much of our incentive to get things done, to make things better. But as good as competition can be, it also can be a detriment if it is wrongly brought into play. "I don't believe we suffer from a lack of competitiveness. If you're talking about the athletic virtues, what we really suffer from is a lack of teamwork," says Lester Thurow, MIT economist, avid mountain climber and former high school football player, who has studied competitive behavior in various societies.
"The basic values of sport have shifted," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil-rights leader and former college football and sandlot baseball star, who has a special interest in education. "Athletes used to operate on the theory of enduring short-term pain for long-term pleasure. You endured the short-term pain of getting into shape, you studied to get into college, you sacrificed early in life so you could prevail in the fourth quarter. All that has been replaced by a Quick-Six Generation that only wants the easy score.
"The great coaches were concerned about character. They taught quarterbacks, 'If you can't control yourself, you can't control the team.' When TV began to create more pressure on coaches to win, they began to make concessions. They put style ahead of substance. Kids were allowed to play when they should've been academically ineligible. That took away academic incentive. Kids were shot up with cortisone so they could play with injuries. Tutors were hired to keep the kids in school. The death of ethics is the sabotage of excellence. The concessions we've made lead the athletes to short-term pleasure and long-term pain."
Winning has become so paramount that other important values that should be inculcated by sports—teamwork, discipline and a sense of fair play—aren't much evident in American sports today.
The phony academic transcripts for athletes, the no-show classes for jocks, the sort of violence described in the incidents at the beginning of this article are symptoms of a "sickness of integrity," as the noted psychoanalyst Rollo May puts it. It's an illness that "clings to money as the proof of all the goals in life," that unduly elevates winning, that makes losers vile. Curing the malady won't be easy, because it means recognizing as destructive some things that have come to seem normal, even necessary, in sports today.