Bruce Wittmaier

Bruce Wittmaier, op-ed columnist

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name

He writes — not that you won or lost —

But how you played the game.

The great sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote this in 1941. They were the final lines in his poem, “Alumnus Football.”

It was a different era in many respects: Men wore suits, ties and hats to games, and women rarely appeared. It was the era of The Galloping Ghost (football player turned broadcaster Red Grange); The Four Horsemen (the backfield of Knute Rockne’s 1924 football team at Notre Dame University); the Seven Blocks of Granite (the Fordham University football team’s offensive line, which included Vince Lombardi); plus Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside (Army’s Heisman Trophy award winners in 1945 and 1946).

Players and fans alike saw winning as akin to a sacred duty and far to be preferred than losing. Fair play, however, was cherished, at least in theory.

Nevertheless, an unknown wag added to Rice’s poem: “But when the rent is coming due and baby needs new shoes, it ain’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose!”

This seems truer than ever, especially in politics.

Now, fair play is but a faint anachronism. “For the good of the country”? Don’t even think about it. If the other side proposes it, attack it. If they manage to pass it, take credit for it.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, plumbed the political depths recently with what can only be called a “birdbrain” idea: He characterized “Sesame Street’s” beloved Big Bird as a government propagandist for promoting COVID-19 vaccines. Oscar the Grouch could not have done a better job. Imagine, the gall of promoting health and safety for the common good.

I have a vested interest here. My daughter in California is fully vaccinated against COVID-19; in social settings, she wears a mask. However, she is in a Bible study with a couple of women who do not mask consistently and some who are unvaccinated. She just had a positive COVID-19 test. Her case is mild, but even mild cases help to keep the virus around.

Cavalier approaches to public health are risky for all.

But to many people, compromise offers no gratification. It’s not quite a loss, but it doesn’t feel like a win either — maybe at best it’s an “oh well.” Which makes it not very surprising that in a polarized society, compromises seldom seem to occur.

Compromise has been described as neither side getting what they want. Some see it as settling. But maybe a compromise is a win-win, and the failure to compromise is a lose-lose.

We need to get better at selling compromise. Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who was a contemporary of Confucius, is said to have observed that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Do we take the one step or wait for the world to shrink until the distance is more agreeable? Is the “one small step for a man” really a “giant leap” in progress? Is building a republic like building a cathedral? That is, does it take a few centuries; parts built early often fall apart and need rebuilding; and you never really finish because the upkeep is ongoing? Time is always going forward. You can’t decide to stay put. You have to, at least, run to stay even. To stop moving forward is to fall behind.

To compromise is to work together, something that gets more difficult when warring clans are involved. We have not forgotten how to work together. Natural disasters still get our cooperative juices flowing. But as the calamity abates, we mostly retreat into our individual lives, intersecting only casually with others. There is little sustained group functioning of the sort that used to keep communities functioning.

We are, quite clearly, busy enough without another group in our lives. But it just may be we have lost (or buried) the cooperative spirit that sustains us as a neighborhood, town or city, state, country. Busyness and the importance of “winning” rob us of togetherness.

In 1954, Muzafer Sherif, one of the researchers behind the movement of modern social psychology, ran a field study in the form of a summer camp program for two groups of 11-year-old boys.

During the first phase, each group engaged in cooperative activities while not knowing about the other group. Then the two groups were brought together for competitive games. By the end of the second phase, the two groups were clearly rivals. In the third phase, Sherif staged some activities that required the two groups to cooperate. Finally, the boys’ water supply was cut off. The resources of both groups were needed to fix the situation. Working together on a common greater purpose forged strong positive bonds between the group members.

Will it take a great crisis to bring about more cooperative behavior, or might we see that the current issues are more than great enough to make cooperation the best route for all of us? How is it that the COVID-19 crisis — and the deaths of more than 774,000 Americans — has not been enough to bring us together?

In 1776, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin is said to have remarked: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

That quote’s origins are not certain. But it speaks to the necessity of unity.

Is such unity possible today? Could we possibly differ on the specifics, but agree that when the goal is attained, we all win?

How will we play the game?

Bruce Wittmaier, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist, a sometime writer and speaker, and a resident of Lancaster city.

What to Read Next