Commentary

In America, it's win or go home

Why fans are the biggest losers in America's sports culture

Updated: March 23, 2011, 12:02 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

Diego ForlanIllustrations by James Taylor for ESPN The Magazine; TSN/Icon SMI; Miguel Villagran/Adidas/Getty ImagesLombardi no doubt would not approve of the third-place game in which 2010 World Cup star Diego Forlan lit up a nation.

This story appears in the April 4, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THIRTY YEARS AGO, a slice of our sports culture died. The NCAA Tournament held its final consolation game, a contest that had been part of the Final Four for since its creation. Nobody cried, especially not Terry Holland, who coached Virginia to the last third-place finish in D1 hoops history, beating LSU 78-74. "I was opposed to end-of-the-year consolation games," says Holland, now the athletic director at East Carolina. "It was was unfair to guarantee that one great team ended the season with two losses."

Fair point. Throw in the fact that this particular game, on March 30, 1981, was played just hours after a nut with a gun tried to kill President Reagan, and it's easy to see why nobody remembers it.

But maybe we should. The death of that game was just one of a series of steps on the road to what sports in America has become: a celebration of dominance and not much else. The NFL buried its third-place game, the Playoff Bowl, in 1970, and the ghost of Vince Lombardi keeps shoveling dirt on it. The current Broadway play based on the best-selling biography When Pride Still Mattered shows the legendary coach took no pride in third place; he referred to the contest as "The S--- Bowl." This is Lombardi's America now, the sole superpower, where we refuse to lose, much less offer consolation. If you're not first, you're last. The perennial cry to replace the BCS with a college football playoff is nothing if not a large-scale attack on consolation games, which are what most bowls are.

Robert Frank, a Cornell economist and co-author of The Winner-Take-All Society, says sports, like other endeavors, has fallen victim to mass-market technology. A hundred years ago, for example, "there was a deep market for singers, maybe thousands of sopranos on tour every year." But now, between iTunes and YouTube, Beyoncé's latest single can be heard and seen around the globe at once. And so she grabs the monster's share of the market. Networks carrying title games have figured that out, eliminating the less-attractive runners-up. It's all part of the march of history.

And yet meaningless games can mean something. Princeton star and future U.S. senator Bill Bradley bounced back from a foul-plagued NCAA semi-final loss to Michigan in 1965 to score a single-game Tourney record 58 points in the third-place game. After feeling it with 19 first-half points against Wichita State, Bradley said years later, "I figured, let it rip."

That's the same attitude some of the world's most popular athletes take at the World Cup, where the consolation game is often the most entertaining match of the tournament. The stakes are lower, so scores are higher, and fans and players seem genuinely happy to be there. Uruguay lost the consolation match in 2010, yet the nation of 3.3 million was still elated because it meant a chance to see superstar Diego Forlan score a goal and bring home the Golden Ball as the tourney's best player. Does he win the award without that performance? No.

Meaningless games? Don't tell that to the Lithuanian basketball team, which owns three Olympic bronze medals. In 1992, Lithuania beat its former Soviet overlords in the third-place game to put a capper on its liberation. Even some Americans still appreciate consolation games. Ask Josh Wolff. The 34-year-old DC United forward played in two World Cups, but he recalls the Yanks' 2000 Olympic bronze-medal game as his biggest thrill and deepest regret. "The most disappointing thing in my career is that we couldn't come away with a tangible, a medal," he says. "Some people may devalue the consolation game, but for me it was a big opportunity."

Joel Best, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware, just wrote a book called Everyone's a Winner, about the proliferation of trophies and awards in American culture, from Little Leaguers to employees of the month. "We're having lots and lots of first places," he says. Though nobody's sure why. Maybe it's because few of us in this sole, nervous superpower will ever win the big one, in any endeavor. So we carve out tiny, hollow victories for ourselves.

Makes you nostalgic for third place.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.