The Universal Notebook: 'The will to win is the only thing'

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Legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi is everywhere quoted incorrectly as having uttered the immortal words, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Actually, those word were originally spoken by UCLA Bruins football coach Red Sanders. Lombardi was only repeating Sanders’ motto, but he maintained he was misquoted. What Lombardi insisted he actually said was, “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is the only thing.”

If that’s really what he said, I have a bit more respect for Lombardi. The will to win is a good thing. Believing that winning is everything is not. In truth, winning isn’t anything. Playing the game is everything.

As Tom Brady and the New England Patriots hoisted the sterling silver football that is the Vince Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of their Super Bowl win, sports pundits everywhere began debating whether Brady is the best quarterback ever and Bill Belichick the best coach ever. The accomplishments of both men are sterling, of course, but they are also slightly tarnished by Spygate (Patriots videotaping an opponent’s signals) and Deflategate (the charge that the Patriots used slightly deflated footballs in their AFC Championship game win over the Indianapolis Colts).

Opponents have tried to make a federal case of this over-inflated affair, but it’s really too trivial for words. As former Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace famously said, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

As competitive as Brady is, I get the sense that at the end of the day he understands that football is only a game, a game that makes him tens of millions of dollars, but a game nonetheless. I don’t get that sense from the surly, taciturn Belichick. He seems to invest each game with the importance of a battle.

Belichick’s palpable distaste for talking to the media is surpassed only by Seattle Seahawks’ running back Marshawn Lynch’s churlish refusal to do so at all, except under threat of fines. The fact that these men are able to make obscene amounts of money doing nothing of any real value is a function of the fans who pay small fortunes to see NFL games live, and the television networks that pay large fortunes to broadcast them.

Sports is an entertainment industry. You work for the fans, gentlemen. Show some respect.

Sports are simply not important in and of themselves. The primary value of professional athletics is as a distraction from the real world, an escape from the ugly reality of terrorists, beheadings, immolations, snipers and drones, of recessions, depressions, unemployment, poverty and racism, of loneliness, alienation, illness and death.

The Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins are all actors in a fantasy world, a parallel universe with its own history, heroes, statistics and rituals. I know there are Pats, Sox, Celts and Bruins fans who figuratively live and die by how their teams do, but I can’t even begin to imagine caring whether they win or not. I just like watching them play, the distraction they provide.

Actually, I enjoyed being a Sox fan a lot more back in the bad old days when Boston hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 and their m.o. was to fold down the stretch. The real lesson of sports, of course, is how to lose. There is only one winner in the end. Now that the Bosox have won three World Series titles in the 21st century, the expectation that they will win again and again gets a little tiresome. They’re kind of like the New York Yankees of the 1960s, the team we loved to hate because they weren’t ours. No one likes a winner.

OK, so I’m being a bit of a contrarian, but I like to keep things in perspective. Ultimately, however, I’m glad the Patriots won. Brady is the very model of a sports hero – handsome, gracious, humble, talented and brave. And I’m happy Malcolm Butler, a guy who was frying chicken at Popeye’s just a few years ago, came out of nowhere to be the Super Bowl hero with his goal-line interception. I just love it when the little guys win.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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