"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," said legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. Well, maybe he said it. Like a lot of American sports folklore, this quote is shrouded in myth, and Lombardi and his family have argued that he was misquoted or misinterpreted.
LeBron James' decision to follow Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to Miami was all about winning. ("The Decision," on the other hand, had other forces in the mix.) But LeBron and company have been criticized for "winning" in shadowy contract talks rather than on the basketball court.
Dan Shaughnessy takes it farther, complaining about the desires of former opponents to join forces: "Whatever happened to good old-fashioned disdain for the opposition?" He illustrates the point by taking us back to the good old days in baseball, with catchers bracing for impact and pitchers hurling balls at batters' heads.
Shaughnessy attributes this non-violence and "fraternization" to the rise of unions that encourage players to think of themselves as part of a larger endeavor. But in looking at other sports as well, it's more likely a generational difference.
Modern sports -- or perhaps postmodern sports -- are built on mutual respect, even mutual encouragement. Snowboarders and skateboarders cheer for each other, though that's also common in more established Olympic sports like Alpine skiing. Mixed martial artists have the occasional feud, but it's more common to see fighters giving each other a bro-hug than a cold shoulder.
Team sports aren't exceptions, especially in team sports that have international play. Soccer players may be league rivals and international teammates. Hockey and basketball players are experiencing more of this duality these days with pros competing in the Olympics and World Championships -- indeed, the James/Wade/Bosh plan owes a great deal to the players' gold medal experience in Beijing.
From an athlete's perspective, international rivalries make more sense than a simple NBA or baseball rivalry. Few players have any say at all in choosing their first teams. Fans may hate each other, but it's tough to expect athletes to replicate that hate just because they were picked 11th rather than 12th in a draft.
And no matter the sport, athletes are in many cases the only ones who can understand each other. That's common in many professions, which may explain why so many journalists marry other journalists. Or why James Carville and Mary Matalin have had a long, healthy marriage.
Carville and Matalin are, of course, massive exceptions to the rule in the political sphere. We as a country are still dealing with the debris of the "win at all costs" mentality of the country's political parties and business leaders. Winning at all costs brought us financial predators and political ads that sounds like horror-movie trailers. These days, winning isn't the only thing -- crushing the opposition with reckless disregard for anyone in your path is everything.
Maybe the athletes can be role models for the political and financial worlds, showing them the lost art of respecting your opponent. And maybe even forging an alliance with former opponents to make "winning" that much more likely. A win-win situation, perhaps?