Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Winning Isn't Everything

Winning isn't everything, nor is it the only thing.

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"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." This infamous quote, often attributed to Vince Lombardi, actually orginated with college football coach Red Saunders, though Lombardi did say it as well.

But is it true? Most people, including those in elite sports, would seem to agree with this sentiment. However, after a bit of reflection, it is clear that most don't in fact believe that this statement is true. And those who do believe it should change their minds. Why is this?

First, consider the fact that in sports there is such a thing as a hollow victory. Moreover, part of the appeal of sports as well as their value is the challenge that excellent athletes and teams pose to one another. If winning was truly all that mattered, then good teams should only seek to play fair or bad teams in order to try and ensure victory. But they don't, at least in part because they are in pursuit of athletic excellence.

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Second, winning is only valuable when it is accomplished in the right way. Jonathan Wilson makes a similar point in his claim that Spain deserved to win the World Cup final yesterday, both aesthetically and morally, because of the brutality of the Dutch on the pitch. An athlete who cheats, or who uses banned performance-enhancing drugs (a form of cheating), or who intentionally injures an opponent in order to secure a victory has done something immoral, and if such an athlete wins it is a hollow victory.

Those who would eschew morality in favor of victory should consider something else that Vince Lombardi said near the end of his life about the "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" quote: "I wished I'd never said the thing...I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn't mean for people to crush human values and morality."

Winning isn't everything, nor is it the only thing.

Follow Mike Austin on Twitter.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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