One of sports' famous post-game rants in recent years is the one by then-New York Jets coach Herm Edwards. It was 10 years ago, on October 30, 2002, when he went off about why games are played, and his mantra, "You play to win the game!," has now become an accepted truism, quoted regularly as the All-knowing Word.
Except -- it's not true.
By the way, I completely understand his point. And the core of it has truth, no question. But -- as a Truism, as the underlying meaning of sports, as the actual reason sports are played (which is what it's become accepted to be) -- it's not true.
There's a point to all, and it's not about sports. Most of it's about sports, of course. But not the point.
But first, here's the original rant.
As I said, it's easy to understand what he's saying. And his reasoning. But the reality is, there are a lot of reasons you play the game. While Herm Edwards is largely talking about professional sports, he really doesn't single that out. In fact, he says very clearly, "That's the great thing about sports." Not professional sports, sports. And if you're taking in all avenues of sports, then sometimes you really do just play the game for the pure fun and joy of it. Or for the exercise. Or because you want to build a friendship with others. Or to get better at it. Or because it's a preferable alternative to whatever else you would have to be doing. Or because you're really good at it, and you get pleasure and pride from being skilled. Or...well, fill in the blank.
But let's say for the moment that Herman Edwards is really only talking about professional sports, period. Well...even there it isn't true.
It's partly true. Professional athletes do generally play the game to win. But ultimately, no, that's not The Reason, the one-and-only reason, professional athletes play the game. Not as the Trusism that guides all professional sports
For one thing, I think it's fair to say that most professional athletes play the game because it's their job. They play to make a living. Being successful at winning the game certainly helps to make that living. But it's very possible to make a great living in professional sports simply because you're great at it, even if your team doesn't ever win. You certainly may be trying to win the game, but for some athletes, you're first and foremost trying to do your best. Not because you're selfish -- after all, doing your best should likely help the team -- but you're playing "to do your best because it's your job and you want to earn security for yourself and your family." You're not playing "to" win the game.
But for the sake of argument, let's accept that some might dismiss that as "Oh, those people are selfish and real athletes disdain it." However, even accepting that, Herm Edwards's mantra is still wrong as the all-guiding Truism. That's because, ask most any pro athlete and they'll tell you that they're not at all playing to win the game, but rather -- They play to win the championship.
Make no mistake, those are two very different things. Sometimes you sacrifice "winning the game," for the greater goal of winning the championship. A team might rest their star quarterback or star pitcher to keep them fresh for the post-season. The remaining players on the field might be trying to win, but if the team really wanted to "win the game," they'd play their best players all the time, and not sit them down to be ready for the championship. One of the top coaches in the NBA, Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, regularly has sat 4 of his 5 top starters -- almost his best players -- for an entire game in order to rest them for the post-season. He's taken a lot of criticism from the league, but the criticism isn't for competitive reasons, rather because officials feel it's unfair to paying customers. But to be clear, the Spurs often play not caring one whit whether they Win the Game at all, but just whether they can win the championship.
In truth, we see that all the time in pro sports, teams taking some action that has nothing at all to do with winning the game, but protecting themselves for the long season and then the post-season. Taking out your best players when you're so far behind that the score is out of hand, for instance. At that point, the team isn't trying to win anymore, they're saving their players and giving the substitutes time to have game experience -- experience they might be needed for later.
Or we see all the time a baseball team's relief pitcher pitch two games in a row and, even though the team needs him to save the next game, needs him to get the last three outs to ensure the victory, doing that would risk injuring his arm, and since they need him for the rest of the year -- and for the post-season -- the team sits him, and puts in their second best. That's not trying to win the game. If the team was trying to win that game, trying everything they could to get that victory, they'd play their very best -- but they're trying to win something greater.
I could keep giving a range of examples, but the point should be clear. Athletes don't "play to win the game." They play to win the championship -- and for a whole variety of other reasons, as well.
To be clear, as I said, I know what Herm Edwards was saying. And much of what he was saying is true. Up to a point. But this is the problem and the point of all this:
When people hear a simple shibboleth, a wise saying that becomes the unthinking equivalent of the 11th Commandment, that's when we tend to run into problems. Not just in sports, but in anything. Because very little in life can be simplified down to one sentence. Including saying that very little in life can be simplified down to one sentence.
Sports are far better and far more interesting than just, "You play to win the game." That's a great starting point. But the lore of sports -- from the playground to the professional stadium -- throughout history goes so much deeper, which is why it grabs the public's attention so richly.
And like anything in life, you have to think before you accept out of hand the simplistic. When what is simple and basic turns out to be true, that's wonderful. But at least you gave some thought to it and figured out why.
By the way, so you know that I don't think poorly of Herm Edwards, he has given one of the most brilliant motivational speeches I've even seen. It's his address to incoming rookies to the NFL. It's incredible -- because it's not just about sports and how to be a rookie in football, but how to live your life in whatever you do. But it's not just one sentence. It's 40 minutes. I'll try to track it down. In a word, it's a gem.
Now, if you'll excuse me, it's Spring Training, and the Cubs game is on. I have to go listen. I hope they win. But then, it's been 104 years, so...well, I sure hope they're playing for some other reason than winning...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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