Losing Makes me Feel Like Crap: A Theological Inquiry into Losing

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.

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One thought on “Losing Makes me Feel Like Crap: A Theological Inquiry into Losing

  1. First, I truly hope that you did find me to be gracious. After last year’s game in Columbus, Julie and I talked about how remarkable it was that we were able to go to church with you the day after the game and lunch afterward and still be friends and we attributed the ease of that to our common belief in Christ. That’s a long way of saying you were very gracious after both Buckeye wins and I am glad you thought the same of me.

    As I’ve thought about this post, which I’ve left open on my desktop for a while, I don’t think competition or winning versus losing is the problem. I think the problem lies elsewhere and the competition only highlights the problem.

    Games are designed to have winners and losers. That’s the nature of games. Maybe I’m conditioned to be this way, but I find the games that try to eliminate the focus on the end result to be rather boring.

    Even solo games, like Solitaire, are about winning and losing. A great example of this is running. I just finished a half marathon this past weekend which was my sixth major running event. In the past, Julie and I have talked about how unique the running community is.

    On the one hand, runners are very non-competitive. Out of 8,000 people that finished the half-marathon, only a handful of people will get recognition of some kind, either in their classification or overall. The vast majority of the runners, probably 99%, are out there for fun and fitness. Most runners, and spectators, realize that there are only a handful of elite runners with a chance to actually win the race. Everyone else is just trying to finish and survive. So the spectators cheer on everybody. Julie has said that when she comes to my races, she loves cheering on the other runners while she waits to see me. And she thinks it is awesome that she can cheer on the other runners without it lessening what I’m trying to accomplish. What is really cool is when the faster runners are back out on the course after they have finished the race cheering on the slower runners. Most runners embrace all the other runners as part of the running community and cheer them on.

    On the other hand, running is super-competitive. Everyone out there is wondering will I finish this race. Will I set a new personal record. Much like Solitaire, each runner wins or loses each time they run a race. Is there something inherently wrong with the desire to win. To get better? Or does the problem lie elsewhere?

    I think the problem lies elsewhere. I think the problem lies in the idea of community. For our lifegroup last night, as we took communion, we looked at the idea of community. One definition of a community is a group of people with common characteristics that sees itself as distinct from the larger group of people surrounding it.

    The problem with competition is that people find their community in the competitors on the field. Too many people find worth only through the sporting community. And so in order to feel like their community is worth something, the other communities have to be degraded. And whether your community wins or loses on the field affect how that worth is defined.

    What do I mean? I am an alumnus of the University of Miami. How do I find self-worth in that community. It could be the reputation of my degree. It could be the number of medical breakthroughs developed by the school or the contributions the school has made to understanding hurricanes. For far too many people, their worth is found through the football’s teams accomplishments. So several symptoms arise from that problem. First, if the team is losing or not good or whatever, they don’t feel good about themselves. Second, they don’t want to feel like they made a poor choice in choosing a community to identify with, so they have to find other flaws in the other community. So, the Miami fan whose team has lost to Ohio several times has to demonize the Ohio fan in other ways in order to restore their own self worth in their community. And when we finally win, that just validates the stories we’ve told ourselves about the Ohio fans and their team and so we feel the need to rub it in your face.

    That’s what’s so amazing about the running community. In the strictest sense of the term competition, everyone in that race was competing against each other and when I see my results, I can see how many people beat me and how many people I beat. But because we see ourselves as a community we don’t derive our worth from our relative positions in the final standings. I don’t have less self worth because I finished several thousand spots behind the winner and I don’t feel superior to the handful that finished behind me. I salute those who finished ahead of me because I have an appreciation for the skill, athleticism and hard work that went into their results and I empathize with the things that might cause someone to have a bad race and not finish so well.

    So is the Christian response to criticize competition or to eliminate the distinction between winners and losers? I don’t think so. I think the Christian response is to address where humans derive worth. Christians need to speak prophetically into the sports world and show people that worth comes from being humanity. Worth comes from being made in the image of God. The only community that truly matters is the community of believers.

    I know that this response does not address competition from the viewpoint of the participant and it does not address the problem we discussed where participants have turned games into work rather than rest. But I hope I have helped or aided or challenged your thinking with regard to competition from the standpoint of the spectator.

    P.S. Sorry for the very long response. Hope it’s helpful.

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