Monday, December 14, 2009


I once wrote an episode of Rhoda called “Brenda, The Bank Girl.” The story involved Rhoda’s sister, Brenda, who, despite being congenitally non-competitive, is goaded into entering a contest at the bank she works at, the winner of which gets anointed, “The Bank Girl.”

As the episode goes on, Brenda gradually catches “Competition Fever”, becoming increasingly consumed by the passion to win. In the end, she does win, but feels terrible for letting a stupid bank contest manipulate her emotions.

The idea for this story came from a personal experience concerning the Emmys, a television prize awarded annually for “excellence.” I was nominated (for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), I tried desperately not to care, but by the time they announced the winner at the ceremonies, I was so worked up, I feared that my powerfully beating heart would burst through my tuxedo shirt and fly into the head of the guy sitting in front of me. (Who, by the way, ultimately won. I still hate that guy.)

I despised what an ultimately meaningless competition had turned me into. Imagine having your heart explode because you happened to lose a tin statue. Boy, would that feel stupid.

You meet a guy in heaven, or whatever:

“How did you get killed?”

“I lost a television award. And you?”

“Normandy landing.”

I am inordinately uncomfortable with competition. But I’ve never figured out if it’s because I’m fundamentally non-competitive, or because I want to win so badly, I can’t handle the entire process. It’s weird. Two opposite ways of feeling result in the same behavior. You simply don’t compete.

Competition is probably totally natural, originating as an evolutionary survival technique. It’s like that joke. Two guys are being chased by a bear, and one of them says,

“I don’t think we can outrun this bear.”

To which, the other guy says,

“I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”

Competition as a saver of life. It’s likely where it all started.

It didn’t, however, remain in that arena. With no bears in sight, people continue to compete, in every way imaginable.



PERSON ONE: I said it first.

Competition is everywhere. You tell a story, and somebody has to “top” it. They met a famouser person. Their surgery was more harrowing. It even works backwards:

“I’m the worst (dancer, cook, understander of computers, fill in whatever you want) in the world.”

Call it “Reverse” competition. They’re claiming the championship of “bad.”

Once, competition involved understood and accepted do’s and don’ts. Boxing was governed by the Marquess of Queensberry statutes. It was okay to punch your opponent’s brain into tapioca, but you had to do it within the rules.

Remember Chariots of Fire? A determined runner, representing England in the 1924 Olympics, hired a professional trainer to prepare him for the games. The runner, a Jew, was assailed for “going too far to win” (the unsavory implication being that Jews gained unfair advantage by ignoring the standards of “civilized” Englishmen.)

The past had clearly recognizable rules, or so we imagine. But at some point, the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behavior got blurred. Who knows? Maybe that’s more realistic. And less hypocritical. Maybe the idea of Geneva Convention, with its rules concerning appropriate behavior during wartime is, like, humane but ridiculous. Such niceties are certainly not found in nature:


ZEBRA: You’re very predatory, you know.

LION: What am I supposed to do, talk you into becoming my dinner?

Humans, however, are a different kind of animal, with different capacities. One, humans can decide whether or not to compete.

“A projectile vomiting contest? I’ll pass.”

And two, if we choose to participate, humans have the ability to make rules concerning the way we do it.

“No gouging your opponent’s eyes out.”

“Man! They’re taking all the fun out of it!”

I know there are still rules. What’s missing is the sense of shame inherent in ignoring those rules, reflected in the saying, “You’re not really guilty, if you don’t get caught.” In the World Series during the late seventies, Yankee baserunner Reggie Jackson stuck out his hip, deflecting a throw, a maneuver that turned the momentum of the entire series. You’re not allowed to do that – it’s “baserunner interference.” But having gotten away with it, Jackson is now immortalized, not as a cheater (except to Dodger fans), but as “a fierce competitor.”

Is there one person you hold primarily responsible for the “winning at any cost” philosophy?

Yes, there is, Italics Man.

And who would that be?

I blame Vince Lombardi.

During the fifties and early sixties, Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to five successive championships. And what was Lombardi’s most famous pronouncement?

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Being a certified winner, Lombardi’s message took hold, embedding itself indelibly in our cultural belief system. So what? “So what” is that this mantra points to a, for me, disturbing logical consequence. In competition, whether it’s sports, politics, arguing with your spouse, or a heated game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, if “winning is the only thing”, the only strategy that makes sense is,

“Whatever it takes.”

In the world of “winning is the only thing”, limiting your tactics – by refusing to engage in what you view as unacceptable behavior – makes you an almost certain loser. And a sucker. And a jerk. You may as well not participate at all.

I guess what it comes down to is this: Do we choose to behave like human beings – regulating our actions by identifiable rules – or do we function as reflex-driven, kill-or-be-killed animals? Until that’s decided – and I mean by everyone, in every game – I’m staying on the sidelines. Although there’s a strong possibility it won’t help.

LION: I’m eating you.

ZEBRA: I’m on the sidelines.

LION: Yeah, I’m eating you.

Oh, well. At least I’m spared the extended chase.


MikeThe Blogger said...

Earl, excellent blog post. You would love this New Yorker Article. Were "Playing by the rules" is outside the rules.

Dimension Skipper said...

Yes, I particularly enjoyed this one too. It brings out many points I too ponder (and more and more lately it seems).

Here are two more competitive sayings to illustrate your point...

"If you're not cheating, you're not trying."

"Second place is the first loser."

I'm with you in the non-competitiveness... I'd be proud to share a sports beverage on the sidelines with you any day, Earl.

BTW, thanks for not dying from that pesky little heart thingie. Maybe your doctor competition paid off?


growingupartists said...

Sharing the sidelines and enjoying the peace.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Your citation of Chariots brings to mind another reference to competition that I remembered from the George Lucas classic, American Graffiti.

Richard Dreyfuss is worried about leaving his world when he goes to college, so he visits his favorite high school teacher. He wants to know why the teacher became a teacher, and the reply is something like, "I found out I'm not the competitive type." The Richard Dreyfuss character confides he's maybe not the competitive type, either.

Matt Patton said...

The whole business of competitiveness in Chariots of Fire is rather complicated. Harold Abrahams, the runner who hired a professional trainer to help him was after more than a medal--he was out to shop up the anti-Semitic snobs who had made his life miserable at college. As for the whole "trying too hard" business with titled and old-money types, it's usually a form of psychological armor against the knowledge that you are being side-tracked and surpassed. Also the fact that, at some point, you had relatives who had to Try to Hard to make their way up the ladder.