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Fresh Ideas: Why there’s danger in believing ‘winning is everything’

Marilee Swirczek

My son was on the basketball team in middle school ” technically, that is. Mostly he was on the bench. He hadn’t had his growth spurt yet, so he wasn’t as tall as most of the other boys, but he was fast and ready to learn. Still, the coach played the better players, and John mostly warmed the bench, watching the coach for the nod that meant a substitution.

Only when the game was a certain win or a certain loss would the coach put John into the game. John would dart onto the floor, take his position, and the buzzer would signal the end of the game. Usually he played for a second or less.

As a mother, I felt sad for John and the other boys who never got to play; as an educator, I had a deeper concern. Athletic competition is as old as history itself and has always been a metaphor for life’s challenges, for the testing of oneself physically, mentally, and ethically, for learning about fair play and integrity. Coaches that valued winning above all other things trivialized sports, I believed.

So I had a conversation with John’s coach. Couldn’t all the boys get a meaningful chance to play? How could they learn if they never played in a real game? Winning is good, but should winning be the only goal? And, looking at the bigger picture, what exactly were the players learning ” both the ones who got to play and the ones who didn’t?

I recalled that conversation recently when I was in southern California and observed firsthand the abhorrent behavior of some Los Angeles Lakers fans after their team lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

In a column entitled “MVP? More like MIA” (June 18), LA Times writer Bill Plaschke demonstrated the consequences of believing that winning is everything. Instead of congratulating the Celtics for their brilliant performance, instead of saluting the Lakers for overcoming incredible challenges and for playing their hearts out, instead of acknowledging both the individual and team effort it takes to get to this elite level of sports, Plaschke ridiculed the phenomenal Kobe Bryant and put the Lakers down, saying that they were “deserving of the jeers.”

Where, I wonder, did Mr. Plaschke learn about sportsmanship, and why was he such a poor sport? Is he typical of sports fans who are loyal only so long as their team is winning? Is he the result of coaches and parents who teach children that they aren’t good enough if they don’t always win, that they’re deserving of jeers if they’re not perfect?

I see this kind of mentality ” when the desire to win overcomes good sense ” in my classes when students cheat because they’ve been rewarded for good grades instead of for their best efforts, even if that means an occasional lower grade. I see it in the bloated materialism of our country when too often Paris Hilton and Britney Spears get the headlines instead of hard-working young people, and then we’re shocked when children steal or even kill for status. I see this mentality in our misplaced cultural values when children hurt themselves because they feel they aren’t lovable unless they’re perfect.

Phillip R. Shriver, former University of Miami president, said: “I believe that coaches and athletes should realize that the athletic department field, court or diamond can be made an extension of the classroom, a place where you and your teammates are learning more than just how to prepare to win. The field, the court, and the diamond should be places where athletes are constantly learning about the game in which they participate, about their coaches and teammates, and perhaps most importantly, about themselves.” If children learn that they’re valued only if they win, what kind of adults will they become? What kind of sports fans and parents? What kind of world citizens?

Mr. Plaschke wrote in his column: “Before the game, if the Lakers were to lose, I was considering writing a column extolling this season’s amazing turnaround and applauding them for an inspiring effort that ended at the feet of a clearly better team.” But he didn’t. Bad call, Mr. Plaschke.

Those young people for whom the Lakers’ individual stories were an inspiration now know that in the end ” despite all the talk about overcoming odds, about the value of hard work and dedication, about “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” ” all those young people now know for sure that we love only the winners.

After the last game of the NBA Finals, when her beloved Lakers lost, my mother said, “Los Angeles ought to have a parade when the Lakers come home.” Good for you, Mom. You make me proud.

Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City.