I spent enough of the past weekend watching the NFL Draft. Wall-to-wall experts. The commentators, analysts, former players, former coaches, drafted rookies, and more, far more, everyone had an opinion. Everyone knew The Truth, at least for the weekend. And it all put the sportsworld, at least for the weekend, into NFL Mode. Everyone hanging onto all those words, all those opinions, all those certainties, over something so uncertain. And it all put me in the mind of SportsTruth, most especially NFL SportsTruth, and most especially one SportsTruth in particular.
One of sports' famous post-game rants in recent years is the one by then-New York Jets coach Herm Edwards. It was 10 years ago, on October 30, 2002, when he went off about why games are played, and his mantra, "You play to win the game!," has now become an accepted truism, quoted regularly as the All-knowing Word.
Except -- it's not true.
By the way, I completely understand his point. And the core of it has truth, no question. But -- as a Truism, as the underlying meaning of sports, as the actual reason sports are played (which is what it's become accepted to be) -- it's not true.
There's a point to all, and it's not about sports. Most of it's about sports, of course. But not the point.
But first, here's the original rant.
As I said, it's easy to understand what he's saying. And his reasoning. But the reality is, there are a lot of reasons you play the game. While Herm Edwards is largely talking about professional sports, he really doesn't single that out. In fact, he says very clearly, "That's the great thing about sports." Not professional sports, sports. And if you're taking in all avenues of sports, then sometimes you really do just play the game for the pure fun and joy of it. Or for the exercise. Or because you want to build a friendship with others. Or to get better at it. Or because it's a preferable alternative to whatever else you would have to be doing. Or because you're really good at it, and you get pleasure and pride from being skilled. Or...well, fill in the blank. Saying that we first and foremost play sports to "win the game" is not only wrong for all non-pros, but sends an awful message to kids.
But let's say for the moment that Herman Edwards is really only talking about professional sports, period. Well...even there it isn't true.
It's partly true. Professional athletes do generally play the game to win. But ultimately, no, that's not the reason, the one-and-only reason, professional athletes play the game. Not as the Trusism that guides all professional sports.
For one thing, I think it's fair to say that most professional athletes play the game because it's their job. They play to make a living. Being successful at winning the game certainly helps to make that living. But it's very possible to make a great living in professional sports simply because you're great at it, even if your team doesn't ever win. You certainly may be trying to win every game, , and hoping to win every time, but for some athletes, you're first and foremost trying to do your own personal best. Not because you're selfish -- after all, doing your best should likely help the team -- but you're playing "to do your best because it's your job and you want to earn security for yourself and your family." You're not playing "to" win the game. And anyone who thinks otherwise, know this: free-agent players leave good, winning teams all the time, for far-lesser teams, and it's almost exclusively for one specific reason - that someone else will pay them more money.
But for the sake of argument, let's accept that some might dismiss that as "Oh, those people are selfish and real athletes disdain it." Or they think it's not valid. However, even accepting that, Herm Edwards's mantra is still wrong as the all-guiding Truism. That's because, ask most any pro athlete and they'll tell you that they're not at all playing to win the game, but rather -- they play to win the championship. In fact, have you ever heard a pro athlete say differently?
Make no mistake, those are two totally different things. Sometimes you sacrifice "winning the game," for the greater goal of winning the championship. A team might rest their star quarterback or star pitcher to keep them fresh for the post-season. The remaining players on the field might be trying their best to win, or hoping dearly to win, or want desperately to win, but if any team really wanted to "win the game," they'd play their best players all the time, and not sit them down to be ready for the championship. One of the top coaches in the NBA, Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, regularly has sat 4 of his 5 top starters -- almost all his best players -- for an entire game in order to rest them for the post-season. There is no way one can look at that fairly and say that the Spurs are doing all they can to win the game. The players on the court are trying their best to win, hoping to win, wanting to win - but if you really do want to win that game, you don't "not play" your best players. To be clear, the Spurs often play not caring one whit whether they Win the Game at all, but just whether they can win the championship.
In truth, we see that all the time in pro sports, teams taking some action that has nothing at all to do with winning the game, but protecting themselves for the long season and then the post-season. Taking out your best players when you're so far behind that the score is out of hand, for instance. At that point, the team isn't trying to win anymore, they're saving their players and giving the substitutes time to have game experience -- experience they might be needed for later.
Or we see all the time a baseball team's relief pitcher pitch two games in a row and, even though the team needs him to save the next game, needs him to get the last three outs to ensure the victory, doing that would risk injuring his arm, and since they need him for the rest of the year -- and for the post-season -- the team sits him, and puts in their second best. That's not trying to win the game. If the team was trying to win that game, trying everything they could to get that victory, they'd play their very best -- but they're trying to win something greater.
I could keep giving a range of examples, but the point should be clear. Athletes don't "play to win the game." They play to win the championship -- and for a whole variety of other reasons, as well.
To be clear, as I said, I know what Herm Edwards was saying. And much of what he was saying is true. And absolutely true. Up to a point. But this is the problem and the point of all this:
When people hear a simple shibboleth, a wise saying that becomes the unthinking equivalent of the 11th Commandment, that's when we tend to run into problems. Not just in sports, but in anything. Because very little in life can be simplified down to one sentence. Including saying that very little in life can be simplified down to one sentence.
Sports are far better and far more interesting than just, "You play to win the game." That's a great starting point. But the lore of sports -- from the playground to the professional stadium -- throughout history goes so much deeper, which is why it grabs the public's attention so richly.
And like anything in life, you have to think before you accept out of hand the simplistic. When what is simple and basic turns out to be true, that's wonderful. But at least you gave some thought to it and figured out why.
By the way, so you know that I don't think poorly of Herm Edwards, he has given one of the most brilliant motivational speeches I've ever seen. It's his address to incoming rookies to the NFL. It's incredible -- because it's not just about sports and how to be a rookie in football, but how to live your life in whatever you do. But it's not just one sentence. It's 38 minutes. (If I've done my work properly, all three parts should run one-after-the-other.) It's a little bombastic, but that's okay, because in a word, it's a gem.
To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about other matters from politics, entertainment, technology, humor, sports, and a few things in between, visit Elisberg Industries.