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Sunday, February 8, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Second Nature: This Country's Love Of Victory Leaves No Room For No. 2

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - Two football teams filed out of San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium Jan. 25 - one as world champs, the other as the new chumps.

Because in America - especially in sports - only being No. 1 counts as success.

Being No. 2 barely counts at all.

"You don't win the silver," Nike ads remind us. "You lose the gold."

In Super Bowl XXXII, the stakes were especially steep for the Denver Broncos. If they would have lost - as the point spread now erroneously predicted - their Super Bowl record would have been 0-5.

Even the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, both 0-4 in Super Bowl appearances, could then look down on the Broncos as having the "worst" record.

But the Packers lost, so they faced the humiliation of having been bested by a supposedly weaker team.

"It's a sad comment on our society that we don't value the people in second place," said Dr. Karen Cogan, a sports psychologist at the University of North Texas. "The mind-set of our culture is that only winning counts.

"I think we should view the second team as having put in a tremendous effort. After all, nobody else got to the Super Bowl but those two teams."

"Americans revere success," said Dr. Mark Unterberg, a Dallas psychiatrist and consultant to the NFL. "Our whole society is fixated on ratings - for TV shows, for stocks, for what's hot, what's in, what's out. Sports are set up as a win-loss thing. If you don't win, you're not victorious. You lose. And the crown of the loser is the crown of disappointment."

Dr. Don Beck, director of the National Values Center in nearby Denton, Texas, says that in Super Bowl competition, the winner-take-all philosophy is exacerbated by "The Ring."

"The Super Bowl ring is the thing," he says. "A loser in the Super Bowl does not get The Ring, and The Ring is like a magic, animistic tribal icon - almost seen as the mark of a man.

"Anything less than The Ring is nothing. Second place is as bad as 30th, because you don't get The Ring."

Football is not the only sport that gives all the spoils to the winner. A mere fraction of a second or a momentary bobble may separate the silver- and gold-medal winners in an Olympic contest, yet the crowd's adoration - and lucrative product endorsements - go to the first-place finisher.

Nor is the win-at-all-costs attitude a new phenomenon. In the '20s, famed football coach Knute Rockne remarked, "Show me a good and gracious loser and I'll show you a failure."

A '50s saying, variously attributed to Vanderbilt University Coach Red Sanders and former Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi, noted that "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."

Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers used to be a proud symbol of second-best. They lost the World Series seven times, most of them to the New York Yankees, before finally beating the Yankees in 1955. Then they lost to the Yankees again the next year.

The Dodgers became known, affectionately, as Da Bums. They drew a national following that contrasted their fortunes to the efficient, corporate image of the powerful Yankees. In a popular phrase of the time, rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel.

Dr. Beck, a psychologist who also writes a sports column for The Dallas Morning News, says the premium put upon winning is stronger today than in decades past.

"Our materialistic society seems to embellish it," he said. "It is part of the Zig Ziglar motivational `See you at the top' message. Only one team can occupy the summit."

Citing the Netherlands as an example, he says, "Societies that stress collective survival rather than individual acclaim would tend not to buy into it."

Dr. Scott Martin, assistant professor of kinesiology at UNT, agreed. "Visitors from other countries are often amazed at the extent that competition is used for rewards and how people are evaluated," he said. "We focus only on the outcome, and we are judged by how we compare to others.

"The Buffalo Bills lost four big games, so they were never looked on as a team that could win - though they played well in that they got to the Super Bowl," Dr. Martin said.

Dr. Martin says Americans need to "think about how we talk about success, about how to improve our performance, rather than of winning at any cost."

If we do, we may have to rethink our childhood. The need to win "goes back to sibling rivalry, the wish for specialness, to be the only one," says Dr. Unterberg, also medical director of Timberlawn Mental Health System in Dallas.

"Sibling rivalry goes on forever," he said. "Children compete for their parents' love and approval, for grades from teachers, then later we compete for promotions at work.

"We never outgrow sibling rivalry. We can master it (or how we respond to it), but it is the origin of envy and jealousy we all feel from time to time."

The only child is not immune, Dr. Unterberg said. "He or she may always feel special at home, but they can have a rude awakening when they start school."

So much for the competitors. And as for fans, Dr. Unterberg points out that "fan is short for fanatic."

"People feel that when their teams win, they, too, are special," he said. "A loss makes them feel unspecial and leads to disappointment, a loss of confidence."

Reactions can also be tied to expectations. "Fans might cheer on an obscure, nonwinning team for just getting to the finals," he said. "But it is expected of others."

Dallas' reaction to the Cowboys' three 1990s' Super Bowl wins was "almost an over-response," Dr. Unterberg said. "It became the norm. We thought that every year the Cowboys should have a Super Bowl berth and a trophy."

"If we were healthy as a society, we wouldn't call finishing second losing," says Dr. Beck. "I would love to see TV pan in on fans at a college game and see them holding up two fingers - as for, `We're No. 2.' I would rejoice in that.

"We can have a strong motivation to win, to be the best that we can be, but to also honor and respect the other levels of success."

Dallas Morning News staff writers Jeff Miller, Philip Wuntch, Ed Bark and Jerome Weeks contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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