Kobe Bryant is all about winning. He’ll do whatever it takes — especially $48 million contracts. So was that guy who said “winning isn’t everything.” Apparently, it’s the only thing. You probably don’t find this strange. I don’t either. After all, that’s what we’re about. Being competitive. We want our teams to win, our kids to win, our pets to win, even our fantasy teams.
But what if winning wasn’t just an outcome? What if it wasn’t the truth? What if it was more or less a concept – like time – that we use to contextualize our sports experiences? After all, measuring our lives in seconds, years or decades seems pretty shortsighted. And so maybe winning is too.
Look at it this way — is there anything more important and less understood than time? For something so pervasive, time is really hard to define. We really don’t know that much about it (scientifically, that is). All it leaves are its traces; the universal laws we can’t seem to undo: Skin wrinkles, fruit rots, beer goes flat. In this sense, time is really a whole bunch of entropy. Everything – from the hair on your head to the garden out back – is always moving towards a greater state of chaos.
Like time, sports are also entropic. They tend to progress towards greater chaotic states. The start of an athletic event – very much like the start of a universe – is compact and highly energetic. At a precise moment it will suddenly and rapidly expand to fill box scores, human consciousness and the internet. Over the next 48-60 minutes (depending), that previously neat and tidy package will unravel and progress towards a messy, complicated ending. That’s just the way of sports. It’s also the way of the universe.
The intricacy along the way cannot be understated. Look inside this microcosmic universe and you’ll see players tire, game-plans fail, shots fall short. But there, amidst all that madness, is a universal athletic truth — Everyone will try and stem that chaos. They will do whatever it takes. Coaches substitute and adjust game-plans. Players drink electrolytes and use deer antler spray. Spectators switch seats and invoke witchcraft.
If we know one thing about life, it’s that things tend to unravel and don’t tidy back up again. From this perspective, “choking” and “losing” are par for the course. They are naturally occurring by-products of life. Because life isn’t perfect. Everything just wants to fall apart.
The beauty of watching an athlete strive to keep it all together in the face of these universal chaotic realities — that’s what sports are all about. Chris Paul‘s dribble hesitation, Roger Federer’s footwork, a human being plunging from thirty feet into a body of water and not making a splash. It’s these moments that make us realize that nothing is perfect but that is the joy of sports — It’s the illusion, if only for just a second or two.
Often times, winning is a natural product of this elusive perfection. But defining these awesome athletic processes through a myopic lens of “we won” or “you lost” is doing sports (and the universe) a gross injustice.
So next time you watch an athletic event, remember the densely packed particles in a 0-0 score and all the chaotic possibilities they will rush out to become. Then remember that’s what we’re made up of. The planets, stars, galaxies, everything. It’s about the little things. Same with sports.