The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


March 17, 2014

Thomas Sabo | Are we placing too much emphasis on winning?

JOHNSTOWN — “I hate them ... well, I wouldn’t say hate them.”

    Which will be the more haunting memory of the 2014 Winter Olympics: That Canada beat USA 1-0 in the game that was expected to produce the gold medal for hockey? Or American player Ryan Kesler’s attitude expressed by what he said prior to the game?

For the many who say the first, the credit, or blame, could be given to the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi. When asked in an interview how important was winning, Lombardi’s reply was “Winning is not everything.” At that point there could have been hope he would go on to speak of the importance of playing well and building character. However, he finished by saying, “It is the only thing.”

For Americans who espouse Lombardi’s philosophy of game, the only thing that mattered is Team USA lost.

Vernon Law, though, saw sports through a different lens.

Law was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cy Young winner in 1960, winner of two critical World Series games that year and, playing on an injured ankle, the starter of the seventh and last game against the powerful New York Yankees, the one eventually won by Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Yankees’ superstar Mickey Mantle cried after Mazeroski’s home run; how critical was it to Law that his team had won?

Law’s nickname was “The Deacon,” broadcaster Bob Prince’s recognition that Law was an elder in his church.  Law summed up his approach to baseball as a game by saying that as he stood on the mound prior to the first pitch he would say a prayer.

Lombardi advocates would guess that it would go something like “Dear Lord, help us beat those bastards.”

Law said he prayed that everyone play well and no one get hurt.

Even at the professional sports level where money-paying “fans” can react to losing by showering players with boos and sometimes things more physical, it doesn’t sound like Law believed that winning was the only thing.

In her 1988 song, Edie Brickell sang, “philosophy is a walk on a slippery rock.”

Who was slipping on what should have been a solid rock in the following account of a local church softball league?

Representatives of churches of the same denomination gathered to discuss the initiative of forming a softball league. The idea was to have some family fun and foster friendship between the churches. Guidelines would be that the score didn’t matter, no awards would be given, all teams had to field at least one female and younger members of the church were to be encouraged to participate.

The first game was between two churches playing by the rules. Fathers were roaming the outfield with their daughters, chasing balls that neither could catch. But people were laughing and, at the end of the game, talking to members of the other church.

Then came game two.

This church showed up with only 10 players, one being a female. They were all in their 20s and wearing uniforms. They played the game by pounding the ball, sliding into bases, running up a huge score, and walking off the field by themselves when it was over, winners of the game. No one was laughing; no friendships were being made.

A subsequent meeting was held to revisit the guidelines of the game. The league had divided into two groups.  Those following the original guidelines felt they were playing for Jesus. The other group said they were playing for a trophy.

A coach for one of the trophy teams made his philosophy clear: There were young boys on his team and he would not teach them to go out on a field without the goal of winning. Before he would teach them that, he said, he would pull his team out of the league.

The idea that there should be a championship award was voted in by the majority.

Lombardi would have been proud.

The league played out the remainder of the schedule under differing sets of rules.  At the end, there was a champion, but on the floor was the league. There was no interest in planning for a second year.

Perhaps the league and the Olympics share a common failing.

As Julie Foudy was joining the rush to leave Sochi after the torch was extinguished, she reflected as follows:

“Awarding the Olympic Games to Sochi is a sobering reminder that the Olympic Games continue to veer away from the fundamental spirit the IOC claims to hold sacred. And by spirit, I mean the Olympism from its very own Olympic Charter: ‘Olympism is philosophy of life ... Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’ ”

NBC covered Russia’s effort to blend sport with culture and education through Sochi’s opening and closing ceremonies. To poor viewer ratings.

More important, apparently, is that the American team won not even a bronze place on the podium and had to watch as the Canadian national anthem played in recognition of the world’s best in hockey.

That’s the way it goes when you’re playing for a trophy.

A way of life based on the joy of effort, not winning?

In America, really?

The Olympics, like a certain church softball league, may be an opportunity lost.

Thomas A. Sabo of Johnstown is a former newsman and former English teacher in the Westmont Hilltop district.

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