Rarely do I write about sports. I am baffled by our obsessive pre-occupation with it. In this town such thoughts will get me burned at the stake for heresy. I can imagine a La Cañada tribunal addressing the hordes of sports enthusiasts:
“Barabbas or Dr. Joe?”
“Give us Barabbas,” they’d answer.
However, I am enthralled by the story within the story of sports. It’s not the score, who won or who won what; it’s the drama that evolves from the great devotions often associated with sport. Human nature is inherently dramatic.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat create within a heightened sense of the dramatic. That is the real story, the kind of story that either elevates or denigrates the human condition.
Last week’s Super Bowl captured my imagination. It was amazing to see the Giants win. A glass of wine always tastes better when you think it’s a cup of coffee.
The game was a reenactment of David beating Goliath, Joe Namath beating the Baltimore Colts, Rocky Balboa beating Apollo Creed, and Luke Skywalker beating Darth Vader. Some of our highest forms of literature support the underdog valiantly doing battle and prevailing against overwhelming odds. However in a culture that aggrandizes winning, support of the underdog is conditional on the underdog emerging triumphant in the end.
Frankly, David, Joe, Rocky, and Luke would be mere has-beens if they hadn’t won. I think we have a hard time supporting failure even if the loser tried his utmost and never surrendered.
We support winners in order to share in the positive esteem of the winner’s glory. However, as we try to distance ourselves from failure, losers are demeaned or pushed into another social group. Albert Einstein once said: “If my theory is proven correct, the French will say I am a citizen of the world and the Germans will say I am a German. If I am wrong, the French will say I am a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew.”
Do we really need to be victorious to feel like a worthy person?
After the Patriots’ defeat, the sports commentators castigated them for not reaching perfection. Their season, marred by one loss, was now deemed meaningless because they did not win the Super Bowl. That message is utterly devastating to the psyche of youth: to be told that your total success is defined by one effort.
As we try for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. Everything is already perfect. And if you can accept that everything is already perfect, the imperfection is a part of the perfection.
Already the sports commentators are pondering what kind of sequel the Giants will write. Will they repeat as Super Bowl champions, they ask? Why is one victory not good enough? Is success defined by successive championships, perfection and dynasty?
The greatest sports movie is “Hoosiers.” Its message is the antithesis touted by today’s sports analysts. It’s a true story about Milan High School’s basketball team and their 1954 run to the state championship of Indiana. “Hoosiers” is about an underdog team from a small rural Indiana community, a coach with a bad reputation, and bunch of nondescript farm boys.
Its poetry depicts a team that will never be able to do it again, thus serving notice that Indiana’s rural basketball tradition would soon exist in spirit only. The message of “Hoosiers” lives in all of us. Sometimes life gives us but one victory. And, that is sweet.
The last scene of the movie fades from Milan’s euphoric winning moment to a present day shot of an empty gym. The camera slowly pans images of Milan’s dilapidated basketball court. The walls are bare expect for one lonely and tattered pennant reading, “Milan High School, 1954 Indiana State Champions.”
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor specializing in helping middle and high school students transition to college. He is a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at email@example.com or write him in care of the Valley Sun, P.O. Box 38, La Cañada, CA 91012.