Losing Ain’t What It Used to Be

LeBron James on Monday in a game against the Clippers. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The world of sports is mean, as cold and pitiless as time itself. No matter what you’ve done in the past, no matter what adversity you’ve overcome in your life to bring you to that particular moment, sports has a way of rendering it all completely meaningless: Ultimately, you’re going to fail. Every day just brings you a day closer to failure. There isn’t an athlete on the planet who doesn’t try to cheat the inevitable and eventually collapse, whether it’s Michael Jordan with the Wizards, Muhammad Ali against Trevor Berbick, or LeBron James, well, now. All victories are fleeting: Enjoy them while you can, because in the end, we all float down here. Losing catches up with everyone, and that will never, ever change.

But the way we react culturally to losing, I’d argue, has changed. There was a time when being a loser was the worst possible thing you could be, a time when holding someone who had failed up to public ridicule was half the fun of watching sports. Think of sports’ most enduring icons of failure: Scott Norwood, Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, Fred Merkle, all players with otherwise excellent careers who became known not for their body of work, but their one moment when it all fell apart on them. Buckner’s infamous error in the 1986 World Series led to so much fury toward him and his family that they moved out of Massachusetts and all the way to Idaho; Norwood’s missed kick in Super Bowl XXV is such a heartbreaking moment in Buffalo sports history that Vincent Gallo once made a movie about an ex-con trying to track down Norwood and kill him. (Perhaps wisely, Norwood turned down Gallo’s invitation to star in the film as himself.) These moments of failure haunted these men the rest of their lives. Fans never let them forget.

This does not seem to be the case anymore. As the world seems to have gotten meaner all around us, I humbly submit that sports fans have grown gentler to those who have fallen short of our hopes and dreams for them. We don’t drag these guys nearly as much as we used to: We’ve gone from obsessing over goats to obsessing over GOATs. We forgive so much more quickly now.

Think of the worst failures in recent sports history. The most boneheaded play call of the last ten years has to be the Seattle Seahawks’ decision, with time running out in Super Bowl XLIX and a chance to put a stake in the heart of the hated Brady-Belichick-Kraft Patriots dynasty, not to give the ball to Beast Mode running back Marshawn Lynch but instead try a pass at the one-yard line. The pass was intercepted as Lynch, and everyone else, stood flabbergasted. Quick: What’s the name of the offensive coordinator who made the jaw-dropping call? In the past, we’d never let that guy hear the end of it — Emmitt Smith called it “the worst call in the history of football” — and his career would essentially be over. (Ask poor Grady Little.) Now not only does no one but the most hard-core NFL fan know his name (Darrell Bevell, by the way), he is in fact still an offensive coordinator in the NFL. (For Detroit, but still.)

When you miss a kick today to cost your team a playoff game, you don’t get Vincent Gallo after you: You get a feature on the Today show about how difficult missing the kick was for you and your loved ones.

I thought about this while watching a terrific new documentary series on Netflix called Losers, which illustrates this sea change acutely. The series, over eight episodes, looks at, as the old Wide World of Sports phrase went, “the agony of defeat,” from well-known examples like golfer Jean Van de Velde’s collapse during the 1999 British Open to more obscure but equally devastating losses like Pat Ryan’s disaster in the 1985 men’s curling championships. (Trust me, it was bad.) The approach to each story of defeat is one of deep empathy, telling the human stories of the failure, what it meant to the competitors, and how they overcame it. It’s a series that looks at failure as simply another page in a novel rather than the end of it, the beginning of an ultimately heartwarming narrative rather than the moment a competitor can never live down or forget. Losing isn’t the end of their lives; losing becomes their origin story.

It is not that we do not still take some joy and relief in the failure of others: Schadenfreude lives on in every Crying Jordan. (Also, did you know the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals?) But it just doesn’t stick to them the way it used to. We are a culture of redemption stories, all of us constantly failing ourselves, in increasingly public ways in a social media age. The idea that losing is not a lifetime sentence, that not accomplishing your goals and still being able to move on with your life is something to embrace rather than live in fear of, may rile the crowd that gets angry about “participation trophies,” but there is value in perspective.

During their playing careers, Dan Marino and Charles Barkley were ridiculed for their inability to win a championship? Now, who cares? The only people who even remember that are their old colleagues who occasionally give them light digs on their incredibly lucrative television shows. In fact, as life as moved along, it turns out that all those superstars who we deified for being win-at-all-costs maniacs were deeply troubled and flawed all along, from Michael Jordan’s ongoing lonely megalomania to Mickey Mantle’s (and many others’) substance-abuse problems to most retired athletes’ inevitable pivot to grousing about These Young Kids Today Don’t Know How Good They’ve Got It. Being that obsessed with winning, at the expense of every other thing in your life, looks, as the years pass, deeply unhealthy … even demented.

Sports themselves will always provide us winners and losers: That is, after all, their primary purpose. (And also to give us an excuse to drink heavily and shout expletives in public in the only real socially acceptable fashion.) But as we learn more and more about our athletes and the world they inhabit, we’re growing more comfortable with winning, and losing, not actually being everything. People who are obsessed solely with winning are less people to emulate than try-hards who need more chill. Mocking losers isn’t so much a motivational tactic as it is punching down. It’s too late for poor Buckner and Norwood. But there’s hope out there for all the future Norwood and Buckners … and, mercifully, a lot fewer Vincent Gallos.

Losing Ain’t What It Used to Be