Competition runs deep in our culture. We pay tribute every weekend in our sports arenas and through our televisions. We invest heavily in sports not just in terms of money but even in terms of our emotional well being. If my beloved Green Bay Packers win this Sunday, all is well. If they lose it will take me a couple of days to adjust. When my team wins I exclaim, “We won!!” This is odd given that I didn’t even play, nor do I have a personal relationship with anyone on “my team”. I read of many horrible things that take place in our world. I’m ashamed to admit that I respond more violently to a “bad call” by an official than I do to poverty, totalitarian brutality and gross injustice.
Our love of competition goes deeper than sports. We make everything a competition. It’s not enough for me to be a good software engineer. I must strive to be the best engineer. My company is out to crush all competing companies. We have competitions, formal and informal, even where they might seem to be out of place. Who is the greatest artist, dancer, philosopher, actor, teacher or preacher? We latch on to objective, measurable indicators of victory. The best preacher isn’t the one closest to God (we’re not sure what that would mean) but the one with the greatest following. If a matter seems undecided, we can always take a vote. Our legal system is implemented via competition. Our political system, our democracy, is expressed as a series of contests. If Derrida had been an American his two great dicta would have been “There’s nothing outside of sports” and “It’s competition all the way down”.
Many years ago I used to speak to various churches on the subject of competition. My talks were based on the insights of an author I’d love to credit, but, unfortunately, I’ve forgotten his name and the title of his book. His main point was both simple and compelling. Competition is good, but always as a means rather than an end. The word ‘compete’, for example literally means to strengthen with. ‘Contest’ is to test or challenge with. I may, for example, run on my own and achieve speed, endurance or both. If I run in competition with another, we strengthen each other. We run faster and better than we would have run on our own. Competition, then, is good when it serves a good purpose.
Our adversarial court system is good, we believe, because it has the best hope of achieving justice. The prosecution and the defense battle the case and, hopefully, truth prevails. There are no guarantees. We understand that our system isn’t perfect, but we believe that it is better at assuring justice than any other system.
Disaster occurs, however, when we forget the greater good. The greater good gives competition meaning. Without it, competition is meaningless. Worse, without it competition risks becoming something evil. A prosecutor may win a case by obfuscating evidence. Most of us see such behavior as immoral even when legal.The goal is a just trial, not a win. The same goes for sports. A sports franchise that holds a community hostage in order to get a stadium built, without regard to the needs of that community, is immoral. It’s evil. It’s wrong.
When my son was young he played in several sports. At times, leagues would attempt to hide winning and losing. The thought seemed to be that losing was so detrimental to the self image of a young boy or girl that it’s better if we make it appear that all the children win. At times we wouldn’t keep score. At other times we’d change the score at halftime if one team was too far ahead. I find such practices to be pretty silly. Even so, they do show a recognition that competition can do harm when we forget the greater good. A better approach, it seems to me, is to teach our children the real value and meaning of competition. We need to teach that the goal isn’t to win, but to make our opponents better as they make us better, to strengthen together. We do that by playing the game with passion, working to win and working at playing justly. Winning or losing doesn’t automatically make us better people. Winning is meaningless as an end in itself.
Because of my disability, I wasn’t able as a child to do all that’s required to participate in sports. I couldn’t run, which made it close to impossible to get to first base even on a good swing of the bat. I was also far too easy to catch and sack, which would seem to preclude my ever being a quarterback. We might think that my childhood was spent on the sideline, watching my friends play. We’d be wrong. My friends included me in all of our games. We simply changed the rules so that I could meaningfully compete. In baseball, someone would run for me. In football, we outlawed rushing the quarterback. We found that rule gave me too big of an advantage, so we changed the rules again. We allowed rushing the quarterback after counting to five. With very little reflection, we knew that the rules of competition should serve us rather than the other way around. Dare I say we understood that the greater good, our friendship expressed as we played together, was what gave meaning to our competition?