Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Must There Be Only One? The Purpose of Championships I & II

The B.C.S. spectacles always generate a cacophony of voices demanding a college football playoff, a system that determines the one true best final ultimate champion (for that year at least). The Super Bowl stands as the mirror image of the BCS response to the lust for one final champion. I want to reflect a little on this thirst to have only one champion. What is the real purpose of championships?

In the underrated movie The Highlander, doomed immortals play out a grotesque game over the centuries where they must battle and kill each other until the end. For There Can Be Only One. In the movie the prize for the immortal left standing is to regain their mortality and live and love as a mortal human.

I always wonder about the drive in sports to demand a championship so that there can only be one. The demand for a championship requires that only one person  or team beats all the rest. This lust for a championship demands one who demonstrates dominance or superiority to all others in competition or combat.

The linguistic origins of champion hint at this dynamic. The concept has the same origins as camp and campus or field, specifically a field of combat. The Romans specialized the word to describe gladiators and the medieval French and English deployed champion to describe the victor on fields of combat especially the tests of military skill at tournaments. This approach  interprets athletics as an extension of  military combat where the stakes are death, and one person must kill or be killed, to vanquish is to live. The moral contest to be champion remains, like war,  zero sum,  and athletics prepares for and mimics this world of war.

American sport metaphors reek of sport's military origins. It banters around the word "warrior" to describe sports heroes; of course, athletes are not real warriors. The real warriors are in Iraq and Afghanistan. The metaphor of sport as combat and war, however,  drives the demand for one champion who vanquishes the rest and gains the victory or prize. "Victory" itself grows from the Latin root "to conquer,"  and this derives from deep Indo-European roots - to fight or subdue or to succeed in combat. The whole cluster of conflict and battle language around sport drives the ideal of champions.

And yet I wonder.        

The moral worth of sport and athletic endeavor can grow from another ethical root. In most cultures sport obviously grew from the cultivation of skills needed to survive and these involved hunting and fighting and cooperation, but the Greeks and other cultures also saw sport as a way to expand and perfect their humanity. They experience sport as practice in cooperation and growth where individuals pushed each other to grow through competition. Part II will examine how this opens a way of thinking about sport without an obsessive demand that there be only one champion.

Part II

Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian art all emphasized the beauty and line of sport and athletes. These cultures appreciated that mastery of athletics required training, discipline, practice and integrating mind, body and emotions. This is the ideal that lingers behind the affiliation of sports with universities in the United States.

For most of us this drive to perfect begins alone - trying to master a bicycle or skateboard, spending hours hitting a tennis ball off a backboard or shooting baskets or dribbling or feinting with a soccer ball. The sport does not matter but the drive first appears as solitary effort to master small skills and overcome endless mistakes and failures. A person learns  not to quit and to push harder and spend time and effort. This drive  begins not with the drive to subdue and dominate others, but to subdue and conquer oneself by mastering the minute skills and traits needed to improve and refine an athletic skill. Young athletes focus on what they can control themself; how many parents and coaches have recited that litany?

The athlete originally competes against baselines, against ideals of form and against themselves to stretch and extend their reach and competence. Athletes often work alone. This  path does not necessarily require the need or desire to dominate or vanquish others.

Now to the ideal of being a champion. The ideal of being a champion spawns championships, the tournaments or environments where individuals test those carefully developed athletics skills and stances.   In this moral vein, the justification for seeking to be a champion flows from testing oneself against others as a way to increase one's own development as a human and athlete. The outcome of these encounters can be not only personal growth but excellence in the form of the sport driven by encounters with other athletes who may be more proficient. This test forces the athlete to develop or stop. This is where the moral power of championships comes from. This is why the NCAA has made holding championships an integral part of its mission.

Winning marks growth and excellence not simply dominance. Competing against another person sets up a trial and motivates each person to work harder. In the competition which can be parallel as in swimming or interactive such as tennis or basketball, the athlete learns if she can swim as fast or kick as far or whether he can shoot while guarded or return a new serve. These trials may end in losing or failure; the other person may be superior. The question before the athlete and person becomes do they settle at the level they are and integrate that accomplished level into their life or do they quit the pursuit entirely, believing they have failed in developing that sport or, and this is the key moral challenge: do they focus harder, work harder, study harder, get training and mentoring? The next trial against people becomes a measuring stick. At some point the athlete or team may reach a skill level  that their growth stops. The athletes require higher level trials and challenges to push themselves new ways to get better at their chosen sport.

This dynamic of challenge and evolution happens in every field such as art, math, engineering, and sport is no different. You see it in little leagues, bronze, silver, gold or select soccer leagues or swimming or gymnastics meets that begin at the age of six.

These layers of testing can be important in two ways. First, some athletes discover their metier but also their ceiling or comfort level with the demands placed upon them. If they do not quit, but want to continue, they choose the correct level to play or migrate eventually to pickup or recreation leagues. Second, this tracking system invites athletes to expand and test and master one level before moving to another.

Each level will have its own championship and path leaders the way beyond the impasse that  there can  be only one. Of course not. There are hundreds of  CYO leagues and select soccer leagues that merge over time into fewer and fewer. Swimming, tennis, basketball and volleyball all swirl with multiple leagues segregated by age, experience, locality. Each team situated within them play against each other in tournaments or league play.

The dangers and challenge in this road lie in the obsession with being number one.A person can be motivated by the driving desire to be  better than the others. This requires beating them at the chosen field of competition. We call them tournaments or championships, both concepts arising from medieval jousts and fields of combat. The  tournament joust was not mortal combat but meant that the winner  could "turn" the rider in the joust. The winner stands triumphant for a day, but the moral excellence can be two very different things.

One intrinsic motivation path involves personal self respect and worth as well as the respect and celebration of one's peers. his  satisfaction and sense of self worth lies deep and grows from the inside where a champion knows he or she has performed their best. They have done their best and know it and from that has arisen their victory.

The other motivation path  involves the sense of worth that depends on the external validation, I beat them therefore I am. If I lose, I am worthless. The driver here lies in the external vulnerability of the motivation and the ultimately limited or even hollow satisfaction. On this path, one's worth and excellence is not internalized and worn with dignity, but it is brittle, anxious, often hidden by bravado, and goaded by the need to prove oneself again and again and again.One can never enjoy the victory because one's worth is only a shell depending upon the next contest.

It's interesting to understand the difference between tournament driven and league driven sports. The season of the league matters and games accumulate meaning as tests and victories or losses, successes or failures, growth or regression moments.  Seasons and league play value each game as both a meaningful encounter but also as contributing to a league championship. There are alot of winners and losers. The championship of the league can be the end of it or then become the launching pad to a berth in the city. county, state, regional tournament where all the league champions meet. League championships have their own moral worth and weight for players.  The bigger championships each acquire more weight or worth because they become more difficult tests against more trained and skilled opponents. In the end each victory beyond the league in championship play marks a growth and achievement or worth.

Of course the final championship brings together the top adversaries or contestants who con-test each other. One finally wins; a player, a team, stands alone at the top of the greasy pole as Disraeli might put it. Here we reach the Roman moment of vanquishing all and as the Roman emperor once said, "you are their god for a day."  For a day is the critical point. Being a champion is a precarious business that remains profoundly mortal. Any day you can be dethroned. Each year or each four years for the Olympics, the champion is challenged again and can lose or fail or not even make it to the championships again.

The point is that being a champion is a gossamer achievement, real, but delicate and fragile and doomed  to end at the end of the next cycle of contestation. The cycle of fighting for and winning championships takes on a liturgical cast since it defines and divides the year up into periods of league play, championship play, championships, rest and quiet and then rebirth of the new cycle.

Other sports like swimming, golf or tennis do not have leagues or strong season play. Their world revolves around tournaments and endless championships, some matter more than other by tradition or money, but no real clear closure occurs. Computers may rank players or in swimming the best times determine over the course of a year, but tournaments possess a fundamental incompleteness but also reveal a world of athletic competition where there are many, not just one. Over the course of a year a golf pro can win several tournaments and be ranked and carry glory, excellence and achievement.

The delusion  that there can be only one remains an ancient remnant, satisfying, blood curdling, and intensifying. But it remains an illusion that floats atop a world of many victors, many champions and seeks the champion of champions for a year or a day, until the next championship cycle or tournament.

In this moral thread of athletics, championships matter not because of the brittle proof of dominance, but because they cast a nimbus of aspiration around all the other athletes who test themselves at every level of the game and sport. The championship stands as a beacon that illuminates achievement, an exemplar of how to do it right.

There need not be only one.

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