Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

On victory

In Football, Long form on September 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

Everyone who’s seen “Friday Night Lights” knows the locker room speech Coach Gaines gives his team in the desperate middle of their final game. What could easily have been a conventional St. Crispin’s Day pep talk about courage, determination, and give-em-hell spirit was a touching, plain-spoken address about the meaning of “perfection” and the importance of winning. “To me being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends.”

Gaines’s speech is an oustanding moment, but he has another interesting if less memorable quote about the importance of winning. Talking with his stoic quarterback, he says, “It took me a long time to realize that there ain’t much difference between winning and losing, except for how the outside world treats you. But inside you, it’s about all the same. It really is.”

Superficially there’s a world of difference between winning and losing, and everyone who’s every played any game as a kid knows how much of a gulf separates these two feelings. What does the coach mean? Gaines’s locker-room speech can illuminate the above quote, especially the point where he says, “Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could’ve done.”

In a philosophical sense, one cannot hold a team totally liable for losing (or for winning), not because “winning isn’t important” but because there are a whole host of factors outside of a team’s control that they must contend with under a great deal of pressure, often in less than ideal circumstances. Gaines’s message is to play your heart out, not because it will always guarantee success, but because that is, from a deeply realistic stand-point, the most you can ask of a team.

This is an intriguing quote because it is counterintuitive, and because it speaks to the somber tone of the movie and its sometimes tragic message. The vast majority of all sports involve some kind of match between opposing teams that end, for each team, in a win or a loss. It’s a simple, binary setup. There is no formal recognition for a game that is lost but well played. “Friday Night Lights” is notable for exploring this possibility—the Permian Panthers had what you might call a “noble defeat” at the hands of a physically intimidating team that was, in some ways, out of their league. What do you do when you are forced to go up against an opponent no less talented nor dedicated than you are?

You give your best. This is not a new concept. The same thing was said some hundred years ago by Rudyard Kipling in “If”, a poetic cousin to Gaines’s address.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same

At the end of his speech though, Gaines goes in a different direction than Kipling. While Kipling ends on a note of give-it-all-you-got gusto, Gaines finishes his speech by asking his team, “Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes and love in your heart, with joy in your heart?”

You do the best you can, not with grim stoicism or firey enthusiasm, but with love and joy. Why? The implicit message is that while winning is a valid purpose for playing the game, there is an even higher purpose to sports, one that is on a different level than the game’s result. That purpose is the sheer and radiant joy of playing hard with your fellow teammates and doing one’s best, outcome be damned.

In this light, Gaines’s speech offers a seldom-heard attitude for playing sports that approximates an encompassing sense of sportsmanship, one that asks its players as much for virtue as for physical prowess. Sports is not merely about winning, or teamwork, or giving your best as a football-player for the team, but about giving your best as a person—in every dimension of excellence—for the team.

Can Gaines’s speech offer any insight into our current political climate, one that is frequently described in terms of partisan rancor and a winner-take-all mentality? Politics and sports are different enterprises with different goals, but it’s significant that our contemporary political scene so often resembles a cheap or myopic vision of sports. The analogy is imperfect but our parties too often define “winning” in terms of electoral victories and executing their policies, and in little else.

But what if politics could draw upon citizenship in the way that sports can draw upon sportsmanship? I’m not talking about civility or commity here (although these are important too) but about an alternative, and I would suggest a more useful identity for players in the political arena. Electoral majorities are part of the structure of democratic politics just as winning and losing are part of most any game. This wont change. Neither will competition and strife. However, an ethos of citizenship sees a way of serving the team, or country, that goes beyond vote mobilization and policy wonkery, and beyond the horizon of beating your opponent and claiming a mandate. The good citizen is not defeated by a failed bill or even by a losing campaign, because there are many ways to participate in politics and to serve the country, ways that do not depend on winning or losing in a narrow, political sense.

To paraphrase Coach Gaines: It’s not about the vote-tally out there, or about the poll results—it’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your fellow citizens and your country.

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