"Boogity, boogity, boogity! Let's go racing boys!" declares the good-natured Darrell Waltrip at the start of the Daytona 500 and other NASCAR races. It's a call to fun, camaraderie, and ferocious competition, and it's understood by those listening that without the competition, there wouldn't be the excitement, the fun, or the preparation that produces excellence. Heck, there wouldn't be a race.
The same fun-filled competitive spirit inspired the Monday night autumn cry, "Let's get ready for some football!" Throughout sports, competition is what makes us watch, it's what makes us participate, and it's the spirit of competition that makes it exciting. It's what made this year's Super Bowl so great. Even the undefeated New England Patriots - the first to finish a 16-game regular season unbeaten - were not simply granted football's highest honor. No, they had to earn one more victory by outplaying, out-hustling, out-hoping and out-scoring the two-touchdown underdog New York Giants. They didn't. They failed. Despite their hard work and diligent effort, they fell short. For the team and their fans, it hurt.
No Kickball, No Tag
Perhaps that's why "competition" has become a dirty word to some education leaders, and why traditional competitive games such as kickball and tag have been banned on a growing number of school playgrounds. We don't want anyone's feelings hurt, we don't want anyone to feel slighted, and above all, we don't want anyone to lose. That may sound nice, but it's impractical, nonsensical, and does a disservice to the children in our charge.
Eliminating competition is impractical because it's fundamental to the American way of life and natural to the human experience. In Connecticut, one school principal outlawed kickball and soccer from recess and suggested that students jump rope or play with hula hoops instead. That doesn't eliminate competition; it just changes the focus to hula hoops and jump ropes. Without proper policing, innovative youngsters might even turn them into team sports. Maybe the principal should just have them all stand still for recess. That might eliminate bruised knees and bruised feelings, but not competition.
And it shouldn't. Trying to eliminate competition is nonsensical because it isn't bad - to the contrary, it's good. It inspires hard work and promotes achievement. It motivates participants to plan, to put out their best effort, and to direct their activities toward accomplishing goals. Many competitive experiences require team or group effort, which encourages people to work together and to promote group success over individual accolades. This can even inspire sacrifice, compromise and respect for opponents.
I'm not talking only about sports. Competition underlies virtually every American pursuit. We compete for college admissions, we compete for jobs, we compete for roles in school plays or spots in school bands, and we compete for political office. The list goes on and on. To eliminate competition would require a complete redefining of American life.
It's All about Sportsmanship
Doing away with competition misses the point. If there are no losers, we all lose, because when competition is fair and honorable, even the losers win. That's why winners invariably point to a previous loss or failure when asked what most helped them succeed. There is something innately positive about working hard and coming up short. It affords the opportunity for reflection and inspires a new effort.
What's most important in winning and losing is sportsmanship. Sportsmanship means competing with the understanding that what we share in common is greater and more binding than what we are competing for. That's the key to American democracy, and it underlies our political process. In this year's presidential campaign, candidates compete aggressively in the primaries, appearing to be enemies. Then one emerges as the party's candidate, and the losers line up in support because the party is bigger and more binding than their differing views. In the national election the differences between candidates are even more profound, but invariably the loser graciously pledges support and cooperation to the winner, because we are Americans first and Republicans or Democrats second.
We should promote competition in our school districts, not denigrate it, focusing on the supremacy of sportsmanship and the mutual respect demanded by our common humanity. Our success will be students who learn to win well and to lose well.
Daniel E. Kinnaman is publisher of District Administration.