There are some things I’ll probably never understand. Like, why a wolf became the mascot for the Chiefs, how that weirdo design ever got approved for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or why it takes three officials to spot the football. But of all the NFL’s mysteries, none is as baffling as the phrase winning ugly. I know what it means, of course; I just don’t know why it still has currency. I think I know who to blame, though.
It’s that bastard Keats. The English romantic poet John Keats. Lots of cred in certain circles. Very quotable. One of his biggies is: ”Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Good stuff. Especially if you’re pitching woo in say, the Ivy League, or 19th century England. Me? I’m not buying it. Aren’t all wins beautiful?
If you win all bets are off. Or at least they should be. There’s winning and there’s losing. Everything else is, well, for poets.
Our film vault is full of some of the most beautiful diving catches you’ve ever seen. Backlit, super slow motion, the works. So pretty they’d make your heart ache. But in the NFL there are no points for pretty. And there isn’t a ballplayer worth his salt who wouldn’t trade six points for a play Alfred Lord Tennyson would describe as a perfect ten. Herman Edwards had it right: you play to win the game.
The concept of playing the game for the sake of competition is so utterly antiquated it doesn’t even merit discussion, just derision. Fair play? Sportsmanship? You might as well put on an ascot and turn the channel to PBS. A time machine wouldn’t hurt either. This fair play and sportsmanship idea is really a remnant of Victorian England, though the real story begins even earlier.
Three years before Keats began mooning over his Grecian Urn, the Duke of Wellington was finishing off Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. For saving the British Isles (and Europe for that matter) from a despotic maniac, the old Duke got a lot of play. He was named Commander-In-Chief of the British Army and was Prime Minister. Twice.
But what really got the island buzzing, was Artie’s modesty (His name was Arthur Wellesley, Duke of wellington is a title. There have been others, though he was the first). Instead of hogging all the glory, the Duke is reported to have given credit for the victory to the English national character. You may know the quote: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Don’t bother beefing its authenticity. Even if it’s apocryphal, it’s illuminating.
The quotation was first published in Sir William Fraser’s Words on Wellington. The year was 1889 and the Empire was at its height. No need to say British of course. There was no other empire. It was so vast, the sun never set on it. The largest, richest, most powerful entity on earth. And of course, the people who ran it were all of certain cut and caste. Educated at few select schools like Eton, Harrow, and Rugby. Yeah, the Rugby School is so upper crust it has a sport named after it. And that’s no coincidence. All those Lords and Earls, Colonels and Kings weren’t just classmates they were teammates.
When your future king is on the cricket pitch, you’ve got to mind your manners. Winning is all well and good, but knowing your place is a lot more important than knowing the final score. At Eton, posh never came to shove. And when playing to win is subordinated, other things rise in importance. Like duty, honor and good humor. It’s hard to play with blood lust when you’re trying to protect the aristocracy’s bloodlines.
That’s not to say the English didn’t compete and play hard and well. It’s just that the culture didn’t prize winning above all else. What did they prize ? Well, like any over class, they liked privilege. But to their credit, they believed that with that privilege came duty. Yes, to God, king and country. But more than that, to the Grecian classical ideals of art and aesthetics. Nineteenth century English public school boys studied Greek and Latin grammar; the modern Olympics are an outgrowth of the Grand Olympic Festival begun in England in the 1860’s. Even the Elgin Marbles had their own gallery in the British Museum. The classical world was everywhere in 19th century England. Which brings us back to our man Keats, poetry about pottery, and all that business about truth and beauty.
Only problem is, the British got it wrong. Truth is, ancient athletes weren’t pursuing beauty but a purse. Yep, ancient Olympians not only won laurels, they won cash. Lots of it by most accounts. They also got houses, no-show jobs, and all manner of loot and lucre. They did if they were good enough anyway. The idea of an amateur athlete—at least for an athlete at the highest level—would have been, well, Greek to the Greeks.
For most of human history, competition has been about winning. And that’s as it should be. Recreation is for fun; competition is for victory. Which means we can keep phrases like winning ugly and “pip, pip well played, old bean” where they belong. In Evelyn Waugh novels, and Merchant Ivory Films.
Besides, you should never look to Greek when Latin is available. For football, the answer isn’t beauty is truth, but I came, I saw, I conquered. Because, winning isn’t just a beautiful thing, it’s something to crow about.