Spring 2010: Prelude

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Confessions of a Loser

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

I’m sure we all recall that gem of encouragement from our parents and childhood coaches. I’m equally sure we all knew, even then, what a total sham it was.

Of course winning is important. We humans are naturally competitive creatures, evolved over millions of years to fight for victory, whether it’s in a struggle for survival or a fireside game of Scrabble.

Which is why even recreational competition can be cruel to players like me. You’ve probably noticed how some people are just more likely to win at games and contests? Well, I’m not one of those.

When my partner and I play tennis, she always wins—always—even though I have had formal instruction from qualified tennis pros and she learned by slamming a ball around with her brother at their neighborhood court. When I ran a half-marathon a couple of years ago, I finished dead center. I am, literally, a middle-of-the-pack kind of girl.

I even lose with some regularity at Scrabble, although as an editor you’d think I might have a talent for it. And I don’t lose very gracefully, either.

So why keep playing? To stay active, keep fit, have fun, challenge myself, keep my mind sharp?

Sure. But mostly, I keep playing because I might win.

The appeal of sport lies primarily in the competition, in the pure potential for victory, whether it’s a casual game between friends or the U.S. Open. That’s why we tend to keep score even if we’re playing “just for fun.” That’s why the sports industry is worth a staggering $200 billion a year, as I learned recently from Philip Schwalb 86L, who founded the Sports Museum of America.

That’s also why it wouldn’t be at all enjoyable for me to play a game of tennis against, say, Venus Williams. The trick, as far as I can tell, is to compete in the right league, where challenge, skill, and spirit are finely balanced and individual players are positioned to rise to their highest level of play.

The Emory swim team, for instance, is definitely in the right league—namely NCAA’s Division III, where the women took the national title and the men placed third in the finals this spring. As President Wagner says in his message on page 40, the Eagles “make no excuse for wanting to win,” and the swimmers have been much celebrated alongside Emory’s many other successful athletic teams. But as D-III athletes, they are as much celebrated for their GPAs and their volunteer service as for their championship trophies, and that’s the balance that the University athletics staff hope will prepare them for healthy, holistic lives long after they leave the WoodPEC behind.

On the other hand, there are those whose livelihood is bound to the sports industry machine and who by definition play a different game. Charles Rosenzweig 80C 80G, head of entertainment and player marketing for the NBA, helps make pro basketball one of the most vibrant and popular forms of athletic competition, bridging the sport with pop culture and keeping star players in the public eye. And Schwalb sought to pay homage to what he calls the beauty and grandeur of the nation’s rich sports tradition with the Sports Museum of America—although, as it turned out, the museum was not quite competing on the right field. No one likes to lose, but if you must, see Schwalb’s story for an example of how to do it well.

Then there are those who help keep athletes in the game, like Emory’s sports medicine doctors who treat the incredible range of injuries sustained in passionate play. Once an elite specialty focused on pro athletes, sports medicine has expanded to benefit everyday, hobby players—who also have found the right outlet for their particular ability and love of the game.

My son, who is not a jock by anyone’s definition, recently joined the lacrosse team at his middle school, and he has surprised us with his enthusiasm for what is an alarmingly rough sport. Being one of the more inexperienced and reticent players on the team, he’s not getting much game time. As I watched him follow the play from the bench this past Saturday, I worried that he would be disappointed. He got put in only during the last couple of minutes and I’m not at all sure he actually made contact with the ball.

Nonetheless, as he walked off the field, he looked unexpectedly satisfied. Ready to boost his spirits, I said sympathetically, “Hey, are you okay?”

He gave me a surprised look. “Yeah, I’m great,” he said, shrugging philosophically. “We won.”

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