With the exception of undertakers, athletes are the only professionals obliged to feign sorrow on a daily basis, pretending that every June baseball loss is a tragedy requiring library silence in the clubhouse. That is why reporters assigned to the losers' locker rooms during the NFL playoffs will speak in the hushed tones of mock sympathy usually reserved for state funerals or golf telecasts.
"Wise men never sit and wail their loss," wrote Shakespeare, but try telling that to Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots' tight end was ripped last year for daring to dance after his team lost the Super Bowl, the prize for which is a trophy named after a man best remembered for saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
It hardly matters that Vince Lombardi never said that, just as George Washington never said, "I cannot tell a lie." Both phrases were willed into existence by a nation shaping its self-image, telling itself what it wanted to hear.
Remember that November photo, taken days after the presidential election, of Mitt Romney pumping gas in a rumpled shirt while suffering the additional indignity of having his picture taken by a fellow tank filler? It was as if Romney, having lost the biggest prize there is to lose, was instantly abandoned by the Secret Service, the press corps, his handlers, family and friends, making it possible to believe—if only for a moment—that he was not patronizing the gas station but working there, as a form of penance. As the author John R. Tunis once said, "Losing is the great American sin."
For much of the 20th century Tunis wrote popular sports books for children in which our national narrative was inverted. "My heroes are the losers," he said. In his lifetime losing wasn't yet the end of the world. It wasn't even the end of the season. For the entirety of the 1960s the runner-up teams in each NFL conference played a third-place game called the Playoff Bowl. The Browns lost that game all three times they played it, doubling down on defeat. But that was fine because even losing consolation games was thought to have its consolations. "I went through a lot of seasons in high school, college and the pros and most of them were losing," Cleveland quarterback Bill Nelsen said in 1968. "This helps—to feel how it is to lose—because it forces you to continue to struggle and to look upwards." Later that week Nelsen lost to the Colts in the NFL Championship Game, his eyes still fixed on the heavens.
The NFL eventually realized that America didn't want to watch a pair of losers square off, and the Playoff Bowl was not just abandoned but expunged from our national memory. History is not just written by the winners, it's written about them.
Which is a pity, because losing has so much to offer. "Success is a lousy teacher," according to Bill Gates. "It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." But of course everyone loses pretty much all the time. Cy Young lost more games (315) than Gaylord Perry won (314). The Giants lost 73 times last year en route to winning the World Series. Of the eight remaining NFL playoff teams, seven will fail to win the Super Bowl—and be instantly forgotten.
Why? "Winning is overrated," said the poet and coach Al McGuire, even though—or perhaps because—he won a national basketball championship with Marquette. "The only time it's really important is in surgery and war."
And yet somewhere along the line, loser became the worst possible playground pejorative. "Show me a guy who is a gracious loser and I'll show you a perennial loser," said no less an authority than O.J. Simpson, in his playing prime. If Charlie Sheen is the 21st century figure most closely associated with "Winning," it is perhaps time to consider an alternative to victory.
So let us say a few words in praise of losing, and celebrate those who aren't allowed to celebrate. On Monday in Portage, Mich., the Harlem Globetrotters were scheduled to play a basketball game on ice—don't ask—which they were heavily favored to win. The Globetrotters last lost to a professional opponent on Jan. 5, 1971, when the Washington Generals' 49-year-old owner-coach-player Red Klotz hit the game-winning shot in a 100--99 overtime victory, after which the Generals hit a rough patch, losing every game for the next 41 years.
My 6'11" brother-in-law, who played at Dartmouth, had his professional dreams dashed when he was cut by the Generals, who decided that his will to lose wasn't strong enough. Losing in the manner that the Generals do it is a real gift, in more than one sense. When Kobe Bryant said in December that he wished his struggling team had the Generals on its schedule, Klotz graciously offered to play the Lakers. "We haven't beaten the Globetrotters in four-plus decades, so I know a little bit about what Kobe is going through," said Klotz, America's slump buster, for whom losing has always been a selfless act.
That Klotz will turn 92 this year is the best testament yet to what losing can do to a man, as long as he embraces the ecstasy of defeat, and continues—in the words of that Browns quarterback—to "look upwards," forever, into eternity.
Once upon a time in the NFL playoffs, losing wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't even the end of the season.