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Wed, 14 Sep 2011

Winning and Sports

Jim and Margery discussed this article on their radio program this morning on 96.9 Boston Talks.

"Wheelock Athletics Lauded in Boston Globe Wheelock College Director of Athletics Diana Cutaia outlined her unique philosophy toward athletics in a Boston Globe article: Winning doesn't matter. Improvement, enjoyment, character, and team building do. And, the article noted, the Wheelock Wildcats are winning more games as a result." Globe Article (PDF)

I was moved to respond.

Sports assumption: Win or be a loser!

Sports reality: Win and it is a temporary, incremental, momentary rush. That is especially true if the win was the result of a fluke, a technical issue, anything which does not reflect the concerted effort of the members of the team. Lose one game, two, three, limited real consequences.

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Winning isn't what it seems to be.

At least for the male population, winning must be put into the context of hunting. Winning for a prehistoric hunter means eating, both for himself and his family. Winning for the hunting party of subsistence tribes means the tribe gets to live another day, a week, a season. Winning means not losing hunting grounds to rival tribes. Winning means survival. In a tenuous, subsistence society, boys need to learn to hunt. They need to learn to run fast, hit hard. Girls need to learn to keep the fire going, to defend themselves, to survive raids when the men are off hunting. Tribe members need to learn to do these things better every day until they can win by "bringing home the bacon" to a shelter that isn't empty or filled with dead bodies.

As a result of that need for skills, games boys and girls play are steps toward the win of survival. For the boys, having at least one good leader, someone best at the training games and visibly successful at hunting is useful to the tribe. Boys compete to establish that leader in their generation. Adults observe the children as they develop and rationally expect success at a rite of passage to promote the the boys to the next hunting party, to productive manhood.

In a healthy tribe, the competition develops a few leaders and a cadre of lieutenants. Being a lieutenant means being able to step in if the leader is incapacitated. Winning isn't zero sum. Being second, third, fourth in line isn't being a loser. The chance that a lieutenant will need to step up to lead is virtually inevitable. Death is always just around the corner in a subsistence society. The only measure of being a loser is death, and it isn't exactly seen as a "failure." Death certainly is failure, but it is inevitable, while not desirable. It is eventually unavoidable. As a tribe, failure would be sitting down beside the game path in the event of a leader's death.

"Oh, well. The boss is gone. We've lost. Let's just sit here and wait for the lions to eat us."

I'd say that such depression of a whole tribe would be improbable in a subsistence society. There certainly might be individuals who would give up, but not the tribe. Pride of survival is the norm. Pride of living long enough to raise the next generation of tribe members to take over. Pride at winning.

In modern society most of us are far, very far removed from actually having to hunt for daily sustenance. Nonetheless, we have a genetic inclination to develop physical and mental survival skills. We learn skills in order to mature from totally helpless infants to functional adults. The problem comes in the middle. Today's adults don't have to kill a gazelle or boar to eat. Adults don't have to kill a lion which is also stalking the gazelle to avoid death. Near adult children don't need to demonstrate their hunting/survival prowess to become an adult. Modern humans have substituted something else in order to satisfy the genetic need to win/survive. We've adapted to a world in which someone else does the "hunting" and we must instead, earn enough money to buy from those suppliers. The relatively unsatisfying accumulation of money has become our measure of prowess. We win if we earn more money than our contemporaries/competitors. We can buy food for tonight's dinner. Maybe we can buy for a whole week. Wow, we could buy food for a year. Hey, what do we do now? What should we buy next? When is enough, enough? A hunter/winner isn't genetically built to shut off the drive to win some more just because dinner next week, next month, year, decade is no longer in question.

Most humans have the built-in desire to be a productive tribe member, developing skills as kids, adolescents and young adults. Most of us want to develop what it takes to be a leader or a trusted lieutenant, even just a productive member of the group. If we no longer must hunt and kill to survive. What do we do instead?

Sport is one pathway to develop and establish hunter/winner skills. Instead of being pitted against death from hunger, we have created artificial conditions by which to test our skills. Sports provide a training ground for the physical prowess that would equate to survival of the tribe. Children begin early to love to play these competitive games. Unfortunately, in our modern world, children lack the need to succeed that kids needed in the past. Today, dominant physical skill isn't really requisite for survival.

Families don't always have the need to put children into working for the survival of the family. Farm families do still ask children to do honest, important chores around the family farm. Dad can plow an extra acre if he doesn't have to also muck out the horse stall. Mom can cook a better dinner for everybody if somebody else gathers the eggs from the chicken coop and weeds some of the kitchen garden. Unfortunately(?) most of us do not grow up on a family farm, not even as part of a sharecropper family.

Parents, even ones living in a four room apartment, do still want their children to be successful. It is built into the system. Lacking after school home/survival chores that are meaningful, children are encouraged to participate in some sport, or another "valuable" extra-curricular activity. Sitting in the apartment, sitting in the suburban family room by the TV, sitting on a curb at the urban street corner with the gang isn't seen by many as good training.

In sports, the system partially breaks down at the level of adult involvement. Most kids' pickup games work fine because they are organized by the participants. When adults tightly organize the kids' activity, too often, the goal changes. The goal changes away from doing well as individual members of a team. Improved individual skill isn't enough. As a group, something more must happen. The goal changes to "winning" in a way not motivated by need. Winning is fine, but the reality in our modern world is that "losing" a sports game doesn't really have serious consequences. The losers go home to dinner just the same as the winners. The parents of the losers don't lose their jobs. The parents of the winning team don't get a raise at work. Many adults don't accept that. Maybe they cannot. Adults urge their sports team charges to ever more effort, even benching the least skillful, all driven by the urge to "win." Winning validates something in their adult survival core. Adults probably still need to identify the next generation of hunters. Humans today really aren't much different from humans 10,000 years ago, maybe even 100,000 years ago.

Getting shouted at by testosterone drenched adults isn't very motivating for most children. It matters, too, that many of the loudest shouters are parents of the players, though many coaches also think it is good to yell. It makes the kid "tough", somehow more ready for life. The question is, does the "win at all costs" survival instinct work that well in a crowded, non-subsistence, non-tribal society?

It is complete bunk that learning to "win" in sports prepares us to be effective stock boys, burger flippers, plumbers, shoe salesmen, office workers, no matter which gender.

Winning does establish the ancient pecking order, though. Winners are looked up to. They are assumed to be good leaders when that may actually not be true in today's society. In our modern world, where daily kill-or-die survival isn't really necessary, what is the value of a winner?

Winners may really just be testosterone-rich bullies who lead because their brash leadership style doesn't put them into confrontation with a lion or bear or even an enraged bull elk. Today, bullies often win in spite of their lousy leadership style. Some bullies go on to be very successful, ignoring the needs of their tribe, taking all they can for themselves with no concern for whose feet they step on along the way. These bully-winners have little doubt that they should continue to be winners, even at the expense of those around them. If they get rich, what does it matter that there are all those poor "losers" out there? "They aren't like me. They're not my responsibility. If they had just tried harder, they'd have been winners, too."

If sports are going to teach "win at all costs", we will continue to overpay hedge fund managers by seeing them not as bullies, stripping others of options. Instead, we will continue to see them as successful "winners." Likewise, corporate CEOs get high accolades because they lead their amorphous corporation's "team" to success...and make money for their investors. Do the CEOs care seriously about the others on the corporate team? I doubt it. They get their props from the corporation board. If they win in the short term, they get their stock options and golden parachutes. The corporation's investors get their short term payback. The board members slap each other on the back and affirm that they are still winners, too. When the climate changes, the CEO is dumped and walks away to another opportunity where their board-and-investor-encouraged short sighted leadership will again work its corporate magic, until the next switch. If and when these rich winners finally tire of the effort, they can retire at 30, 40, 50, whatever. Their leadership role may finally be in tatters, but they still are "winners" in the eyes of society. They are RICH. Society honors them. "They earned it!"

The job-hopping CEOs' multiple millions don't necessarily make them care a minute about the people who have to subsist on the leftovers, especially the leftovers of a mediocre career, especially the leftovers of a series of unremarkable jobs: Social Security.

Wait, don't these money hungry winners also support Social Security? They pay in, don't they?

Well, yes, without considering recent economic stimulus reductions, the social security tax (aka FICA) is 6.2 percent of salary (matched by the employer). A person making $30,000.00 pays 6.2 percent, that's $1860.00 a year, to FICA. Someone making $106,800.00 personally pays 6.2 percent, $6,621.60, FICA tax.

But, jump up to a person who makes $200,000.00. They still only contribute $6,621.60. The social security pool doesn't benefit from their financial win. And if a person makes 200 million dollars, they still pay only $6,621.60. Not only are they winners once, they are "winners" again when they retire. They get the same social security benefits as a middle class worker who maxed out over several years at about $100 grand and stayed at it until 67 years old. The winners, though, probably still have some of that one year 200 million, and the multiple millions from the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that...

I'm actually not so impressed by that kind of winner. That kind of "winner" doesn't support his community well. That kind of winner doesn't necessarily have any sense of responsibility to his tribe, the one that supported him on the way up.

What a winner.

Sports at the college level and below should serve society better than that. Sports should not be a by-product of the wish of the booster club "investors" to vicariously be winners. "Look, look. My team won this weekend. I won't say I won much money from my bet on them, but I did win."

Worse, yet are the blood suckers who bet "the spread", winning their bets even when their beloved team actually lost the game within the handicapped margin. "See, I can be a winner even if my team is a bunch of losers, this week. Maybe, though, we should be looking for another coach. At this rate, they can only get worse."

I repeat. Sports should serve us better than that.



posted at: 15:10 | path: | permanent link to this entry