In contemporary America the notion of “competition” often takes on a very negative connotation — visions of ruthless protagonists vying for some kind of conquest, intrigues and deceit being their modus operandi, slither across the landscape of every aspect of our societal structure.
Vince Lombardi’s often quoted but just as often misunderstood utterance, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” has been used as the mantra of not only victory, but of an approach to life. This attitude has infested our culture to the point that the un-attributable quotation, “It is not enough that I should win. All my enemies must lose as well,” seems to have become gospel.
In sport we boast that youngsters can learn about life and life’s lessons through competition, but we have focused upon “victory” as the essence of competition to the detriment of a proper development of competition and sportsmanship.
However, I was witness to one of the greatest displays of competition and sportsmanship I have experienced in my six-plus decades on God’s earth – Game 7 of the NBA Playoffs between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. The entire seven-game series had been one of two great competitors slugging it out in each contest in a seesaw battle which culminated in last night’s game.
The Heat won Game 7 by a score of 95-88 in a game that saw eleven ties or lead changes. And it had come down to the final 2 minutes of the final game of the final series to determine the best team in the NBA for the 2012-2013 season. There was no compromise on either team. No quarter asked, no quarter given – just two champions in an electricity-charged arena.
And then, one of our modern-day gladiators took charge and infused his cabal of like-minded cohort with a burst of energy to give them the NBA Championship.
For me, that was not the end of this great series, which may go down in NBA history as one of the greatest, certainly one of the most storied. No. What I was eyewitness to was a reaffirmation of all I believe that sport competition encompasses. When the final whistle was blown, the confetti streaming down, the sweat dripping from every coach and player, and many fans as well, there were no spectacles of boast or pride or vengeance or hubris.
Those of us who noticed, and many did, we saw great competitors who had great respect for each other after battling in seven hard fought games hugging each other, heaping praise upon each other, shaking hands, patting heads and congratulating each other on jobs well done.
You see, they understand that competition is not competition without an opponent, no matter how worthy; that an opponent completes the contest; that victory is not won, but is earned. Their sincere measures of respect extended to every part of each team’s organization as coaches and team officers shook hands, hugged and exchanged honest compliments to each other.
In the post-game interviews, the mutual praise continued and there was no doubt that it was heart-felt, sincere, honest.
Every participant, from the ball boys to the club executives, knew very well what had happened. In victory the Heat were humble, and in defeat the Spurs were gracious. They know the essence of competition is not victory, but, rather, full participation with every ounce of effort, dedication, pride, and commitment. And they know that it is hollow without opponents who genuinely respect each other.
If sport is really to teach us anything, it is to teach us to exhibit the highest qualities of the human experience, the highest ideals we profess as a society, the most sacred principles upon which we base our great nation. And last night, after the competition drew to a close, the real significance of that contest was demonstrated – sportsmanship reigned!
I used those actions by those worthy warriors as an exhibit to my young sons about what it really means to compete – what sportsmanship is and should be. Without it, competition is a shallow exercise in bravado, an empty gesture of conflict, and diminishes the intent and meaning of sport.
As I see it, Hamlet’s words, “The play’s the thing,” took on a new meaning for sportsmanship as Coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs head coach, hugged LeBron James of the Heat, and with each other looking squarely in the eye exchanged words we will never know, but will be forever be etched in our memories as reaffirmations of respect for each other.
They know what sportsmanship is. They know what respectful competition entails. They know what it takes to win, how to accept defeat, and they exhibit the lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.”
And last night, they gave the world a lesson in sportsmanship.
Dr. Arthur G. Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.