"Winning isn't everything," legendary Green Bay Packer's coach Vince Lombardi preached: "It's the only thing." Growing up in my house in the 1960s and 1970s, where Lombardi was a god and the Packers were gridiron angels, that competitive spirit animated my father, and me and my siblings through adolescence, until we realized that The Coach's mantra was becoming as much prophecy as predicate.
Winning certainly beats the alternative-just ask any loser. And there are still relatively few competitions today where one side goes home a champion and the other side just goes home. Even Super Bowl also-rans get a ring. But winner-take-all is increasingly becoming the rule in our market culture's politics and economy as well as in sports, while little consideration is given to the consequences for society of exalting one winner above all the losers.
House Republicans seem oblivious to this concern in their pointilistic prosecution of President Clinton. Second-place is clearly not good enough for them. Despite surveys consistently showing that voters don't want Clinton removed, and heedless of the yawning absence of impeachable offense, Hyde-bound Taliban Republicans insist on pushing an all-or-nothing strategy that has already begun to backfire. When winning is the only thing, losers must be willing to settle for nothing.
Microsoft-the world's other superpower-has pursued the brass ring so determinedly it's tried to kick all the other riders off the merry-go-round. After all, if winning is everything, then rules are for losers. But the losers in this kind of competition have options, such as appealing to the ticketmaster (in this case, the antitrust division of the Department of Justice) to re-enforce or even change the rules. Simple mathematics demonstrates who will win this kind of competition.
In court or at the ballot box, winners may at least enjoy the satisfaction of winning once and for all. In the global economy, however, the King of the Hill must be prepared to compete perpetually, with certainty only that the winner must eventually lose and battle be rejoined. Shareholders at Connecticut-based Long Term Capital Management recently re-learned this lesson, when two-thirds of their value vanished on bad bets in world stock markets. Rules being for losers, though, select winners know they can count on a timely bailout courtesy of their friends at the Federal Reserve, and later perhaps taxpayers, to get them back in the game.
Of course, few achieve solely on their own efforts, knives clenched boldly in teeth. Mark McGwire acted sportsmanlike during his race with Sammy Sosa to set a new homerun record. That both were abetted by weak pitching staffs, baseballs sewn tight as golf balls, and league management eager to alleviate a ticket-sales slump should serve to remind us that sometimes winners get by with a little help from their friends. McGwire's indulgence in half-a-dozen performance-enhancing "nutritional supplements" (several of which are banned in other pro sports) shows that when it comes to winning, one's long-term health may not be sacrifice enough.
Often as not, though, winners don't just beat losers, they keep them down. Long Term Capital Management's fall threatened not just its shareholders but investors around the world, and millions of companies that had never heard of LTCM until the Federal Reserve intervened. Proponents of Lombardi's pan-Darwinism argue that a society advances on the shoulders of its winners. But everyone contributes in a competition, and winner-take-all is only one way to award the victor.
Perhaps most lamentable about the assimilation of Lombardi's ethic into our market culture is that it draws in, molds and ultimately perverts so many worthy individuals and aspects of society that might otherwise contribute in a less cut-throat contest. This was on my mind as my employer, the publisher of this magazine, told me of the deep and sincere spiritual awakening that made him less interested in being biggest (a quantifiable, winner-take-all goal) than in being best (always a subjective measure). I didn't have the heart to tell him that, in a society where winning is the only thing, then nice guys always finish last.
William Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.