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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 17, No. 2, 2018
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nick Catalano
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cautionary tell

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Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:


When he began coaching the Green Bay Packers in 1959, Vince Lombardi was widely quoted as saying “Winning isn’t everything . . . It’s the only thing.” Later, after winning several championships (and the first two Super Bowls) he often claimed that he was misquoted and what he really said was “Winning isn’t everything . . . The will to win is the only thing.” At the end of his life he backspaced again “I wish I’d never said the thing . . . I meant the effort. I meant the goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

Sports journalist Grantland Rice once said “It’s not that you won or lost, it’s how you played the game.” As evidence that Coach Lombardi steadfastly subscribed to this philosophy and not the misquoted one, we have Jerry Kramer’s best-selling account Instant Replay. In his book, hall-of-fame guard Kramer bemoaned the fact that Lombardi often took the joy out of winning a game by lambasting players if the team actually played badly. And if they’d lost a game but played well he avoided any criticism. A close study of Lombardi’s life’s constantly shows that it was a commitment to Grantland Rice’s wisdom that truly expressed his competitive philosophy.

Other disinclinations of “winning-is-everything” abound in the sports world: After winning his most recent of several Super Bowls, the great 49er quarterback Joe Montana sat alone in his locker room hesitant to remove his uniform. For hours after the game he had been besieged by reporters and TV commentators from everywhere hailing his athletic immortality. But he after everyone had left he felt a strange sense of emptiness. He had ‘won’ everything imaginable in his career but he found himself mumbling “Now what . . . ”

The great French historian, educator and sportsman Pierre de Coubertin who was responsible for re-instituting the Olympic games in 1896 uttered his philosophy thus: “the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” In the modern Olympiad, five-time rowing gold medalist Sir Steven Redgrave upon being congratulated on being champion in Los Angeles uttered to himself “Well, what are you going to do next?”

The literary world has given us a legacy of master works illustrating the deception of the winning-is-everything mind game. Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “El Dorado” tells of the journey of a gallant knight who, after struggling for an eternity finally realizes that the gold of El Dorado (or riches in general) is unattainable in this world. Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay “El Dorado” echoes Poe’s theme but expands it suggesting that the winning-is-everything approach fails in any instance where it is the only goal of for the seeker:

Happily we all shoot at the moon with ineffectual arrows; our hopes are set on inaccessible El Dorado; we come to an end of nothing here below. Interests are only plucked up to sow themselves again, like mustard. You would think, when the child was born, there would be an end to trouble; and yet it is only the beginning of fresh anxieties; and when you have seen it through its teething and its education, and at last its marriage, alas! it is only to have new fears, new quivering sensibilities, with every day; and the health of your children's children grows as touching a concern as that of your own. Again, when you have married your wife, you would think you were got upon a hilltop, and might begin to go downward by an easy slope. But you have only ended courting to begin marriage. Falling in love and winning love are often difficult tasks to overbearing and rebellious spirits; but to keep in love is also a business of some importance, to which both man and wife must bring kindness and goodwill. The true love story commences at the altar, when there lies before the married pair a most beautiful contest of wisdom and generosity, and a life-long struggle towards an unattainable ideal. Unattainable? Ay, surely unattainable, from the very fact that they are two instead of one.

Plutarch in his famous Lives recounts the story of Alexander the Great who was distraught after his legion of conquests. “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” In the third Punic War as he perceived the city of Carthage burning, Roman conqueror Scipio Africanus the Younger was said to weep bitterly at the price paid in human lives and culture because of his winning-is-everything pursuit.

In Homer’s legendary epic Odysseus chooses to spurn the offer of immortality from Calypso. He contemplates how the Gods are actually envious of humans because they have done everything and have no goals to achieve; they can’t experience the fulfillment that a journey through struggle brings. And so he turns down the offer to become a God choosing to maximize his human existence and the gold obtainable only from the life journey that humans make.

Quixotism is a will power defying materiality. It is the attempt to make a utopian vision a reality but like all utopias it is unacceptable in a world where idealism is shunned. Thus, although Don Quixote wasn’t victorious in the pragmatic world, the imaginative vision and struggle that Cervantes has given us is a winning recipe for a fully lived life.

The desire to win at any cost is a major aberration of an unenlightened society. And the claim that winning obliterates all ills is deceitful. The principle of winning at any cost has been a concomitant of capitalism and it is in the business world that its evil is most evident. In the 1960s so-called seminal economists came up with the, by now, wide practice of mergers and acquisitions to enhance corporate growth. It made little matter that workers everywhere would lose their jobs as a direct result of this practice but few focused on the societal harm that ensued. During the recent recession it was discovered that brokers (Goldman Sachs et al) were actually selling short investment products that they had touted as good buys to their clients. These clients lost big but the brokers who manoeuvred these ‘derivatives’ won handsomely. Credit rating agencies (Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s) failed to target this corporate abuse for fear that they would lose their huge fees. Major bank loan officers wildly granted mortgages to bad credit customers because they made more money in these kinds of transactions. The winning-is- everything philosophy has now permeated every facet of the working world no matter the breaches of ethics involved.

It is not dominant in the world of children. Doctors Frank Smoll and Ron Smith report in Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, “Contrary to what one might expect in a highly competitive society young boys and girls prefer playing for coaches who stress skill development, personal and team success, maximum effort and fun . . . rather than for coaches who maintain a win-at-all-costs approach.”

As Wordsworth once uttered “The child is father of the man.” If adults could return to the beliefs that they had as children, the aforementioned evils of winning-is-everything might eventually evaporate.


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Excellent! If only we could educate our children, grandchildren, country and world to understand and believe this. Arn't all men created equal? — Hal
So beautifully written and thought provoking.

By Nick Catalano:
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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