Lombardi cast a long shadow and his thinking still influences the media and fans of today. Consider the Buffalo Bills and the Denver Broncos, two very successful football teams. Unfortunately, the Bills are still looked upon as a team that could never win the big game. On the other hand, Denver, a team that used to be compared to the Bills, finally won a Super Bowl and all was forgiven. John Elway retires a hero. Jim Kelly? You don’t hear his name much anymore.
Since Lombardi and his Green Bay teams were consummate winners, some consider his words to be gospel. But a problem arises when you wholeheartedly adopt Lombardi’s philosophy. You put yourself in a self-imposed trap where your only recourse is to win. Any other result is a failure. Former Minnesota basketball coach, Bill Musselman, put it this way: “Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat.”
I doubt coaches like Lombardi and Musselman sincerely believe these statements. I would like to think they used them strictly for motivational purposes, never expecting them to be adopted as literal truth. Regardless of their intent, in today’s America, the concept of winning at any cost is a commonly held belief, practiced at the corporate level of sport all the way down to Little League.
In Major League Baseball, owners appear to unite in an attempt to lower salaries. Then, one or two will break rank, acting as though their earlier opinions, which embraced fiscal responsibility were just empty words, suddenly go out and spend unprecedented amounts of money to get the player they think will lead them to victory.
Certain alumni have no ethical reservations when it comes to paying blue-chip athletes the amount of money necessary to outbid a conference rival. And, of course, many of these athletes have no problem accepting the cash.
Some high school coaches and administrators collaborate in order to keep the best athletes eligible to play, ignoring academic deficiencies and covering up personal indiscretions. With this kind of preferential treatment as part of their background, it should hardly come as a surprise when an athlete at the collegiate level creates a problem. While this “win at any cost” mentality might be good for schools and universities, it seldom benefits the athletes. For every athlete that becomes a rich professional, untold others flounder in the “real world.” Having been allowed to take the easy way out too many times in the past, they often find it difficult to accept the hard knocks that await them after graduation (assuming they graduate at all).
This way of thinking has even trickled down to the level of kid’s sports. Not long ago, a Little League board meeting erupted into a riot, requiring a police response and the attention of paramedics. In another incident, one Little League accused another of having recruited illegal players from outside its district. At every level, there are those who will do whatever it takes to win.
In the business world where the sharks bite hard and the unwary are eaten daily, this philosophy of winning at any cost makes some sense. It’s unfortunate the same attitude has permeated so much of the amateur world of sports.
Remember this archaic wisdom: “It is not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you play the game?” Funny, but I don’t hear that saying much these days. Maybe it needs to be brought back.