Winning Isn’t Everything

I was born in Atlanta and have been a diehard Atlanta Falcons fan since birth. Yes, I grew up in Orlando, and despised the fact our TV market was stuck watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins games. All I wanted to do each Sunday was see Steve Bartkowski (my childhood favorite player – the Falcons quarterback in the late 1970s and 1980s) throw a long touchdown pass. Yet during that time period, the Falcons were perennial losers. In fact, I often tell people the worst day in Falcons history was January 1999 when they went to play in their (then) one and only Super Bowl (losing 34-19). Why so disappointed? Because I suddenly had high expectations for the team. Winning became a priority.

This weekend, my beloved Falcons will play the San Francisco 49ers for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVII on February 2. Understanding I live on the west coast and last Sunday the Falcons defeated the Seattle Seahawks, many of you may be cheering against my team – one that very few expect to win. But do not count my Falcons out!

Now, why am I sharing this story about football and the Atlanta Falcons? Isn’t football just a game? And, like you, I am just a spectator and fan. Unfortunately, at certain levels the “fun” turns into hypercompetition where winning is everything – the only thing.

Winners become heroes. They become immortal in some ways. We place them on a very high pedestal…cheer them on…feed their egos…buy their “brand”…and expect them to succeed forever. Unfortunately, these expectations are just too high.

I am sure you have all been following the Lance Armstrong saga, and perhaps many of you saw part one of last night’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Finally, after years of denials and virulent attacks against his accusers, Lance admitted using performance enhancing drugs.

Lance shared in his interview that he did not fear being caught. But for argument sake, let’s say he was caught or admitted it much earlier, I believe many of us would be more sympathetic. The real problem – his years of denial and the cover up. Doesn’t this go back to one of those parental lessons we try to teach our children – it is better to tell the truth than to lie – regardless of the repercussions.

No one will deny he is a talented cyclist. No one can take away his courageous victory over cancer. And creating the Livestrong Foundation has helped so many. But, today, do you still hold him in the same regard as you did before? He cheated…lied about it…all because as he said in his interview, he had a “ruthless desire to win.”

It is not uncommon for people who achieve a certain level of success to want to hold on to it forever. But our minds, our bodies, and our culture just do not work that way. Think about aging athletes whose skills diminish…rock bands that had their day…and movie stars who are no longer in acting. It is one thing to get to such a high level of achievement – it is even more of a challenge to stay there. With the money, fame, and glory available in this day and age, the pressure to succeed is that much greater and a “win at all costs” mentality sets in.

There is a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma.  Dr. Robert Goldman, a noted steroid expert, conducted a survey biannually from 1982 to 1995 where he asked elite athletes if they would take a drug that guaranteed them an Olympic gold medal yet would also kill them within five years. Every time Dr. Goldman administered the survey, more than half said they would. This “death for glory” mindset is a major reason athletes take enormous risks for their health, reputations, and career – even if they don’t want to.

In 2008-2009, researchers asked non-athletes the same question. Results showed that only .008% of people said that they would take a drug that would ensure both success and an early death. Researchers were surprised, initially thinking 10-20 percent would say yes. The conclusion was that elite athletes are “wired” differently from the general population, especially in their desire to win.

An old AZA friend of mine, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz wrote in his blog this week, “Judaism condemns cheating, but our tradition recognizes that cheating involves more than breaking the rules. A Hebrew phrase used in the Talmud to indicate cheating is geneivat da’at, which literally means the theft of the mind or in other words, cheaters who intentionally mislead or deceive others to gain undeserved goodwill are considered thieves. “There are seven kinds of people who are guilty of stealing,” our sages teach. “First among them are people who misrepresent themselves to others” (Tosefta, Baba Kama 7:3).”

Let us all always be true to ourselves and to others. As the saying goes, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s how you play the game.”

Shabbat shalom.


PS – Next Tuesday will be the national elections in the State of Israel. It will be interesting to see the results and who makes up the next Knesset and coalition government. More to come.


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