Duh, Winning

Back in my younger days, I used to watch quite a bit of professional wrestling. It all started with my dad watching wrestling from the Memphis Coliseum late on Saturday nights (Any “Superstar” Bill Dundee fans out there?). Of course, as time progressed, Hulk Hogan and the WWF came to dominate the landscape. During my college years, though, the Hulkster defected to WCW wrestling, painted on a fake, black beard, and turned heel, creating the New World Order (N.W.O.) and providing me and my college buddies with hours of mindless entertainment.

For pure, dumb male spectacle entertainment, WCW action could not be beat in those days. I remember watching an episode of WCW Thunder one Thursday night on TBS, though, that literally made me laugh out loud. If I remember the match correctly, it was a 12-man tag-team match featuring six Mexican midget wrestlers.

It was perhaps the worst spectacle of professional wrestling I’ve ever seen. Picture those two crazy midget wrestlers with the weird-looking masks from “Nacho Libre” and then imagine 12 of them fighting each other. Totally mass chaos. It was so awful that after about five minutes it just started to be funny. To this day, I don’t remember how the match ended. I’m sure one of the little dudes jumped on top of one of the other ones and ripped out his heart or something. Ah, those were the days…

Yesterday, as I drove around Paducah searching for various Memorial Day bargains, I was listening to the unfortunate saga of now-former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel unfold and those luchadores pequenos came to mind. I’m not going to go through the whole Tressel saga here (Sports Illustrated has written about all there is to write here.). What struck me this afternoon was a comment made by ESPN Radio host Scott Van Pelt. In discussing the sad state of college football in America, Van Pelt said the following words (and I may be paraphrasing here): “If you wanna win today, you gotta cheat.”

Of course, the first response that rises up in most of us when hearing statements like that is, “No, you don’t!”. I’d like to believe that any team at any level with any combination of talent has the potential of beating any other team on any given day. I get frustrated every year when teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Kansas City Royals continue to lose and lose and lose, despite having supposedly major league talent. I’d like to think that a mere attitude adjustment can turn a loser into a winner.

The hard truth of the matter, though, is that (for reasons I don’t entirely understand) some athletes are just simply better at their sports than others. As much as I’d like to believe every athlete has the same shot at winning, it’s just not true. LeBron James will simply always be a better player than Adam Morrison (although he will never rock a ‘stache nearly as well). As a result, coaches, fans, and administrators know this simple truth: To be the best team, you have to have the best players.

Fielding the best team, though, has gone far beyond simply winning games these days. Especially in the realm of college athletics, being able to put the best team around on the court or field week after means you can cash in on major dollars for your organization. Schools looking for greater prestige, higher enrollments, and nicer facilities realize that being the best a particular sport only helps their causes. Coaches who want to cash in on multi-million dollar contracts know the only way they can do that is to win, win, win. In college football, the BCS has created such an immediate “win now … or else” environment that schools can’t wait to grow their programs; they have to be successful today.

With fans also expecting to see the absolute best product in front of them week after week, there is absolutely no room to just be ordinary anymore. I think of the horror that NFL fans express when faced with the prospect of having to watch replacement players again. A few years when Major League Baseball used replacement umpires, I thought fans were going to storm the fields and trample the poor guys. I absolutely refuse to read the book, watch the movie, or check out the TV show “Friday Night Lights” because I think it’s ridiculous that so much pressure is placed every year on high school boys who should be figuring out how to shave instead of supporting a massive, parent-driven, pressure cooker that just won’t accept anything other than success, success, success.

Of course, plenty of suggestions were put forth yesterday to solve this problem of cheating in American sports: The NCAA should crack down on schools during their seasons instead of waiting until after they’ve had a chance to play in championship or bowl games; scouting services should stop giving eight-graders ego complexes by ranking them in magazines every year; and, the one I totally disagree with on almost every level, the NCAA should start paying college athletes a little something every year.

What if, though,  instead of going to all these great lengths to sustain a system that is obviously becoming morally harmful to almost every involved, everyone just stopped worrying about winning so much?

I’m not talking about creating a society where everyone gets a first-place trophy, win or lose. I think competition can be a good thing. Competition at the expense of losing our souls, though, doesn’t seem worth it to me anymore. So the next time a kid wants to go to college closer to home at a small school, the boosters and the coaches and the administrators from the big, powerhouse school should live with that. And if the “scab” wants to come out and play football while everybody is on strike, let him play. And if a guys wants a bajillion dollars to play baseball for your team, tell that guy you’re not paying him that much. If you’re interested in your soul, you’ll start thinking this way; if you’re just interested in winning, I sound like a lunatic.

What I’m suggesting would, admittedly, put an inferior product on the court or field for a lot of major universities. I don’t know if it would level the playing field, but it might. That’s not the point, though. From the nation’s economy on down, nobody in this country is willing to take a step back in order to take a step forward. I lived without a cell phone for years; now that I have one, I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. If I didn’t have enough money to eat, though, that cell phone would have to go. And if American sports fans want any type of morality or conscience in their sports, they’re going to have to learn to sacrifice a few W’s to get there.

And that’s where those midgets come back into the picture. Yeah, they were pretty awful, but if for some reason all the other wrestlers in the world needed to go away for a while to get their houses in order, I would watch those little guys in a heartbeat. I might even learn to love them. Well, like them, at least…

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