That’s not exactly what you may expect as today’s theological insight, but I think there’s alot of theology to consider here. I’m writing my paper about the American obsession with winning, and flew down to Miami this past week for a long lesson in losing. It seems quite academically relevant, so I wonder if I can write the trip off as an educational expense!
Saturday night we attended the fourth installment of the decade-long emerging rivalry between the University of Miami Hurricanes and the Ohio State Buckeyes with our good friends Brian and Julie. We have been fortunate to attend the last three games of the series, and I had been fortunate enough to leave the previous two games avoiding the feeling of losing. Saturday night, that streak came to an end.
In 2003, Ohio State defeated Miami for the National Championship, and last season Ohio State and Miami were both more highly ranked (and, oh by the way, not in the midst of a pretty ugly recruiting investigation and sandal), so I suppose if I had to choose one game to lose, it would have been this one. Had we lost the other two, the depths of my losing feeling would have even been deeper. I got to leave with a feeling of exuberance, excitement, and joy. Brian, the Miami fan, however, had the opposite feeling – the crappy one I felt Saturday night (and let’s be honest, it still lingers).
So, in the midst of wrestling with all this theologically, the question to deal with today is, why do I feel like crap after I lose. To this point, I’ve been referring exclusively to spectatorship (as much as Brian and I would have loved to play in the games, we were forced to watch from the stands), but the crappiness factor of losing only increases if you have a direct result in the outcome of the game. I don’t think I have to go out on a limb and tell you that the Buckeye football players feel crappier than I do (and that the ones who actually played feel worse than the ones who remained on the bench), and equally, the joy that Brian felt at the Hurricanes winning was dwarfed by the players, and especially those who actually played in the game.
All of this, of course, is a teasing out of the question – if it’s “only a game” why do we care so much? To this day, my son Clark, at 6, still isn’t sure who’s winning or losing his baseball games until he asks . . . when they are over. He isn’t noticeably more happy if they win or sadder if they lose. He takes it all in stride. He just likes to play the game.
Where does that innocence go? I once saw Ohio State lose to Michigan in a football game (it’s been a loooooooong time ago to be sure 😉 and remember hearing someone say as we were leaving, “Well, I would rather have been here and see them lose, than watch it on television.” There is something appealing, no matter what the outcome, about the game itself. After all, why else would people continue to attend Cubs games (or Browns games, or Bengals games – OK enough picking on Ohio teams!)? But any fan is going to admit, it’s a little more enjoyable when your team wins. I can honestly say that I never root for my teams to lose. Ever. Even if I think they are doing things a little questionable (eh hem). Even if they will get a higher draft pick if they lose. I always want them to win. Herm Edwards said it best, “You play to win the game.” A fan’s version of the quote would read, “You watch, to see you team win the game.”
So . . . back to the original question, “Why does losing make me feel like crap?” Even if “how I played the game” was exemplary and beautiful, I still feel like crap when I lose. The theological insight I’ve been wrestling with here is whether or not this is more of a cultural manifestation or a theological one.
Americans hate to lose. Now that’s an understatement. History books are rewritten to preserve the fact that “America has never lost a war.” Corporate money and influence pour into the U. S. Olympic team to ensure a top finish at the Winter and Summer Olympic games. Our understanding of a winning formula largely undergirds the capitalistic economic foundations (a hard working man is rewarded) as well as the Calvinistic Puritan foundations (man’s purpose is to work hard and in the end the winners (elect) will be separated from the losers (the non-elect) of American civilization.
That’s why we hate ties. Baseball games cannot end in a tie. Basketball plays additional overtimes until one team wins and one team loses. College football now plays overtimes until a winner is determined. Hockey recently eliminated ties from their regular seasons. And, I would argue, one of the biggest hindrances to soccer catching on in America, is the fact that so many of the games end in ties. Interesting, the NFL is the only professional sport (of the major four) that can still end in a tie (the NFL plays one 15-minute sudden-death regulation, and if neither team scores, the game ends as a tie). It doesn’t happen often, and every time it does it renews the discussion if games should end in ties. I can still remember one year watching Ohio State and Michigan battle to a tie – the game left me feeling strange. My cultural upbringing had not prepared me for such an outcome.
So, back to losing. After Saturday night’s game, I felt pretty crappy. Brian felt pretty excited. He was gracious, as hopefully I had been when the table’s had been turned. I admit, I probably felt crappier than I should have, and for a little longer, but it by no means ruined my trip to Florida, and I’m just about completely over it – almost 😉 Some people, however, are crushed by losing. Everyone understands the look in the eyes of the girls in the picture above. Heads hung low. Scowl on the face. The entire body language speaks louder than any words. Anyone who has played or watched sports knows that feeling.
Brian and I talked about it afterwards and we decided that those are the people who’s identity is completely tied up in their team. Our teams are certainly an extension of our identity. That’s why we wear their colors, sing their songs, and become emotionally involved. All of this is fine and dandy . . . to a point. For the Christian, this is touchy territory. We should always walk softly here. Keeping sports in their place is awfully challenging – especially if you’re a Yankees fan (since your team wins all the time), and especially if you’re a Cubs fan (since you’ve never seen your team win).
For better or worse, one of the crappiest sports moments of my life was when Ohio State got pummeled by Florida in the National Championship in 2007. It was easily one of the most embarrassing moments in college football in the past decade. Ohio State looked like they had no business being on the field with Florida. For some reason, the only thing I remember seeing or reading after the game was Troy Smith’s comments (Ohio State’s quarterback and Heisman trophy winner who had an abysmal game): “If this is the worst thing that happens to me, I’ll be OK.” He said it with a big smile on his face. This probably reads like a “homer” anecdote, but Smith’s comments bear repeating. Over and over again for people who suffer loss. It’ s a game. Over 70 years ago a sociologist/cultural critic named Johan Huizinga wrote that the spirit of play is imperative for our games. We were created to play, Huizinga believed. If we, indeed, play games, losing doesn’t make us feel too much like crap. We can find our redemption in the play itself. I believe play is more closely associated with rest than work. Sports should be a rest . . . not work.