Not long after the November election, a friend came over to chat for a moment in the gym where we exercise.
"I have an idea for your next column," he said. "You should write something about how we need to have better losers nowadays. I was always taught to accept the victors' gains and to own my losses. Why can't people these days acknowledge that their side didn't win?" He mentioned the rancor of some on the losing side in the elections.
Our conversation then veered to sportsmanship.
"I was always a tough competitor," said my friend, who had been a coach, educator and championship high school basketball player.
"I learned to play hard, give my all to win, but if I lost to be gracious and congratulate the winner." We both then recalled the saying, "It's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game."
I had recently reread a favorite book, "My Losing Season" by Pat Conroy, which chronicles the highs and lows of Conroy's senior year as captain of The Citadel Bulldogs basketball team as they toiled through a losing season in 1966-67 with eight wins and 17 losses.
"Loss hurts and bleeds and aches," he writes. "Loss is always ready to call out your name in the night. Loss follows you home and taunts you at the breakfast table, follows you to work in the morning. There is no downside to winning. It feels forever fabulous. But there is no teacher more discriminating or transforming than loss."
Conroy realizes that he would not change anything about that losing year.
"It was the year I learned to accept loss as part of natural law. My team taught me there could be courage and dignity and humanity in loss. They taught me how to pull myself up, to hold my head high, and to soldier on."
Researchers have reported results of psychological studies that winners of games feel good because they have defeated someone else, whereas losers focus on the value of the game or the margin of loss. Winners seem to say, "We beat you -- we're the winner!" while losers say, "We barely lost -- we have a good overall record!"
Such findings are likely in amateur contests, but when wins or losses are in professional competitions the effects are different. To win in professional sports is a matter of increasing income security. The stakes are higher and longer lasting -- perhaps for a lifetime.
Vin Scully, the retired sportscaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers, summarized the professionals' situation: "Losing feels worse than winning feels good."
Childrens' activities in sports, arts, music, academics and entertainment are now increasingly professionalized. Growing up today many people construct a mercenary mentality which demands only winning and glorifies such sayings as, "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser" (Vince Lombardi) or "Show me a good loser and I'll show you an idiot" (Leo Durocher).
In my former workplace my colleagues and I discovered unpredicted reactions to winning and losing.
Our college implemented a merit pay scheme for salary bonuses, and each member of the faculty was placed in one of three categories: "exceptional," "meritorious" or "steady." Professors rated as "meritorious" received a modest bonus added to their regular salary, and the few rated "exceptional" received a bit larger one. Those who were "steady" received no bonus.
The results were counterproductive. Professors were not spurred to greater productivity to be judged as exceptional or meritorious and receive bonus money. Most felt overlooked, hurt and bitter. The overall effectiveness of our department was diminished by creating winners and losers on the job.
Recently, I revisited a memorable quote from the elegant sportswriter Grantland Rice in 1927: "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 capitalization of 'One Great Scorer' and 'He' was not by accident. Rice's quote denotes a more spiritual message than winning or losing in games or monetary payoffs. He says he was influenced by ancient Greek writings that Olympians were motivated by a higher calling than money.
After losing a big fight with Ken Norton in 1973, Muhammed Ali said, "I never thought of losing, but now that it happened, the only thing is to do it right. That's my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life."
Dick Usher grew up in Paducah and is a retired Murray State University professor. He lives with Mary, his wife of 58 years, on his granddad's old farm near Fairdealing. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.