“We’re here to win,” Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat innocently admitted. “We can say we played well all we want, but if we’re not winning, it doesn’t mean anything.” It is a message that rings hollow as the Windy City recovers from the sexual assault case that has rocked the entire NHL community. Yet it is a phrase that is repeated by countless players in every season of every professional sport. It is the culture and measuring stick that players and coaches are held to. Their job security absolutely depends upon winning.
The “win at all cost” mentality thrives at the professional level. Like an incurable disease it takes its toll on those who fall victim to its powerful attraction. It is the evil within winning that can be uncompromising and uncontrollable. Following Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace he admitted, "My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike, but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance."
The Kyle Beach scandal involving the Chicago Blackhawks is just the most recent tumor exposing the devastating consequences that the cancer of winning is capable of producing. It has been a plague on sports since the beginning. Whether it is the Black Sox, Joe Paterno, Larry Nasser or Tonya Harding, the horror list of acts driven by the obsession with winning is overwhelming in both its sheer volume and scope of atrocities. Much like heroine, winning can be a drug that some simply cannot control. The need to win, and all the glory and rewards that come with it, is an end result that cripples the ability of some to follow any moral road map.
This potential demon surfaces in many different ways. In players, the drive to win can cause them to seek illegal and unethical ways to give themselves a physical, mental or emotional advantage. For some they will compromise their own morality for fear they will jeopardize their opportunity to stay on the team. Evil people connected to the team use that desperate desire to take advantage of them in ways that otherwise would be completely improbable. Coaches, general managers and owners turn a blind eye to criminal activity to protect the winning mission.
The culprit in each case is in some way intertwined with the insatiable drive to win.
Our faith in the value of athletics is tested each time one of these indignities is exposed. Adults we hailed and praised for their leadership are suddenly reduced to mere fallen mortals. Many have done great things within the communities they thrived in and I believe in most any other situation, where winning was not the driving force, would have made a very different choice. The simple processing of right from wrong in their brains was incapacitated by their yearning to win. Joel Quenneville was respected and revered in Chicago as his team barnstormed to three Stanley Cups in six years. Now his winning legacy and his character will rightfully be forever tarnished. The indigestible irony is that a lifetime of good can be destroyed by one decision, yet a lifetime of bad cannot be absolved for one good decision. Our belief that good will triumph over evil is shaken.
Mournfully, for Kyle Beach and others who have been the victim, one rightful and brave decision could have avoided the entire ordeal. In most of these tragedies there have been multiple people who could have changed the course. Revered Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews lamented, “I can’t change the past, I can’t undo what happened. I’d just like to know more and more what Kyle feels and what he wants and what he envisions for the future. For maybe someone like me in my position, what we can do to make a difference.”
Those who knew, remorsefully, had their chance to make a difference ten years ago.
In sports we often tout “that winning cures everything”, but in reality it covers up problems, not erase them. Legacies are tarnished and the mark they leave behind is forever. The appetite for the power that the winning machine delivers can subdue and silence even the most principled of us. Coaches, who wield that power, will be tested by its inescapable influence and compulsion. The recognition of the power and danger that the “win at all costs” mentality possesses has prompted many safeguards and awareness, but hasn’t stopped it from continuing to rear its ugly head. At the professional level, coaches are recycled and their won-loss record alone will open many doors and cover up many past transgressions. Players with elite talent are given multiple opportunities despite the growing graveyard of faults in their closet.
As we reluctantly wade through the sordid details of the Blackhawks negligence, we are left to wonder if character and winning are incompatible with each other. Is every winning program corrupted at some level? Do sports really build character? With so many sports figures letting us down on a regular basis they all seem like legitimate questions. The misconducts of sports seem to methodically dominate the positive stories that also exist. Surely the likes of Tony Dungy, Mike Krzyzewski and JJ Watt will never let us down… will they?
With the help of the media, we are drawn to these examples of failure and scandal. It is a virtual high way of car wrecks that we slow down to look at then drive away. Reassuringly the good of the athletic experience still exists. The benefits and character building framework remain, but as in any walk of life, they can be destroyed by bad people or good people making bad decisions. Much like the history make-over that some are pushing in our society; we don’t learn and grow by covering up the indiscretions and mistakes of the past. When we remember them they transform from historical atrocities to valuable reminders of the tremendous progress we have made. It is then up to us to be sure we don’t repeat those mistakes.
Alex DeBrincat reiterated after a recent loss, “Gotta find a way to win that game.” The drive to win is not going anywhere. In spite of the potentially grave consequences, the recognition, financial gain and power that winning produces will always be a potential demon for those who cannot control it. It is a Goliath when unchecked, but one David, doing the right thing, can send the demon to its demise.
I always preach that while we cannot all be a great player, we can all be a great teammate. Kyle Beach needed just one great teammate, one act of courage over comfort, one display of character over carelessness, to change everything.
It would have taken just one.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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