The High Cost of Win-At-All Cost

In 1972, when I was the scrawniest ten year old swimmer in the Midwest portion of the United States, I competed in a big YMCA swim meet somewhere in Ohio. According to the buzz on the deck, one guy I had to swim against was the top ranked ten year old in the state. I can’t remember the stroke or distance. All I can remember is his psycho mother hovering behind the blocks prompting him to swim fast enough to hop out, towel off, and throw some clothes on. In her twisted mind, posting the fast time wasn’t enough, he had to belittle his competition. He executed her maniacal plan to perfection. Having lost the mother lottery, odds are his adult life didn’t turn out too well.

Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a., ” The Blade Runner”,¬†has me thinking again about athletic competition and character.

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Conventional wisdom is that athletic competition enhances character. But when win-at-all cost thinking prevails, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Athletes shouldn’t bare all the blame for “win-at-all cost” approaches to sport. Among others, corporate sponsors, insecure parents, and rabid fans are all co-conspirators.

I recently read a book and watched a television series that powerfully illustrate the high cost of win-at-all cost thinking. The book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The television series, House of Cards, a Netflix original program.

On the Pad, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was 307 pages. The first 57 were decent, the last 250 truly outstanding. Billy Lynn is an 18-19 year-old Iraq war soldier. His Bravo troop is touring the United States following a widely reported and celebrated fire-fight with Al-Qaeda enemy combatants. Apart from a few flashbacks, the story encompasses about 48 hours, one day at a Dallas Cowboy game at Dallas Stadium and one day at Billy’s small-town Texas home.

Sometimes, when reading especially good fiction, I can’t help but stop and marvel at the artistry. Franzen’s Freedom was the last book that repeatedly stopped me in my tracks. The same with Fountain. “How did he do that?” I kept asking myself. Sometimes by “that” I mean how did he write a particularly beautiful sentence. More generally, I mean, how did he weave together details of soliders’ lives, the realities of modern warfare, the violence of professional football, class differences, family dysfunction, free-market economics, evangelical Christianity, and popular culture into a cogent anti-war argument? All of those sub-topics interest me, and I’m a dove, so it was as if Fountain set out to write a book for me, but if any of them interset you, I strongly recommend it.

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Netflix spent $100m to make 26 episodes of House of Cards, loosely based on a critically acclaimed 1990 British t.v. miniseries of the same name. The first 13 episodes are available to U.S. viewers. Netflix streaming costs $8/month. Think of House of Cards as a cross between The Sopranos and The West Wing. Kevin Spacey, the main character, is a phenomenally immoral,¬†Machiavellian¬†political heavyweight. The question isn’t whether should you watch it, the question is whether you can watch just one episode at a time. Long story short, Spacey, Francis Underwood, or FU, is the House Majority Whip who helped a Democrat get elected President. Underwood mistakenly expects to be appointed Secretary of State in return. Sent reeling, his immoral politicking is riveting stuff. Again, highly recommended.

Win-at-all-cost thinking is corrupting on athletic fields, on battlefields, in business, in politics, and in personal relationships. In every sphere of life. But we’re loathe to admit it because we loose perspective all too easily and are part of the win-at-all-cost problem.