Yesterday's Super bowl gave us another triumph for coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, who are famous for doing anything to win: listening in on other teams' play-calling, under-inflating footballs, or staying up all night pouring over the rulebook looking for an obscure loophole to exploit on a key late-game play. Or letting veteran players go at the first sign of decline, when other teams would keep them on for a year or two out of loyalty or to please their fans. Their confidence and ability are amazing, but behind their victories is a hard-edged desire to win at any cost.
Meanwhile the Times is running a comparison of two of basketball's greatest athletes, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. James has won three championships and Anthony none, and this is generally explained by pointing out their different attitudes toward winning. Anthony is often in the news for feuding with his bosses or his teammates or some off-court shenanigan, but James only makes the news by doing absolutely anything to win a championship. (Change teams, get involved in personnel decisions, etc.) As one of James' friends and teammates recently put it, "LeBron may be the most physically gifted basketball player to ever step on a court. But because he has those physical attributes, some people try to discount or disparage his desire, and it’s unfortunate. Because once you get to play with him, you realize there isn’t a place he won’t go in order to win."
There isn't a place he won't go in order to win. I would put that next to "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" in the lexicon of championship sports. Because, really, that's what winning championships is about. Yes, these people are great athletes and train amazingly hard. But at the highest level, there are lots of great athletes who train hard. What separates the champions more than anything else is a desire to win at an almost insane level. Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Lionel Messi: these people are crazy. But because the things they are crazy about are games that millions of people love to watch, we heap them with riches and adulation.
Understanding this infuses my appreciation of sports with an ambivalence that borders on melancholy. Because, really, what kind of person would sacrifice everything else to win a championship? Is that the sort of world we want to live in?
It's the meritocracy in its most extreme form. Which is what some people love about it; no politics, no bs, just a game played by rules that everybody knows, the crown going to the best player or the best team. No trophies for participating, no whining about unfairness.
As a Sunday afternoon fantasy, it's fun and exciting. The things our best athletes can do astonish and delight. But it's a dangerous attitude to have toward life. Having a good life is not so much about achieving goals as it is about loving and being loved, knowing and being known. It's about connections, not victories.
And a good country is one that tries to give as many people trophies for participating as possible, not one that only has time for champions.
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I've always hated organized sports for exactly this reason - it all ultimately boils down to an ape-like tribal contest to see who is most obsessed about pecking order.
Competition is quite literally killing us. It brought us to the brink of nuclear annihilation. It perpetually keeps billions of people in poverty. It is responsible for the vast majority of human suffering and misery throughout all of history.
Nationalism teaches us to hate people we've never met and to take pride in things done by other people. Capitalism teaches us to hoard wealth like dragons, and to embrace selfishness and greed. Corporatism teaches us to value organizations more highly than actual people. Militarism teaches us that everyone is out to kill us, and the only safeguard is to kill them first, or at the very least to cow them with the threat of death. And on and on and on.
And so very much of this is cultural, not biological. There have been successful societies and cultures that rejected competition and heirarchy. They failed only because more competitive and heirarchical societies came along and destroyed them. There's nothing intrinsically stopping us from being a cooperative species rather than a competitive one. The fault is not in our stars, but in our selves.
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