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Opinion: Has America forgotten how to lose?

Reflecting on the anniversary of attack on the U.S. Capitol, I am struck by how difficult it has become for us to be gracious in defeat

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With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a person holds a candle at a vigil on the one-year anniversary of the Capitol attack.

With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a person holds a candle as a singer performs “Amazing Grace” during a vigil Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Washington, on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

Reflecting on the anniversary of the dark day of riots and violence that overtook the U.S. Capitol one year ago, I am struck by how difficult it has become for us to be gracious in defeat. 

Learning to lose well is one of the most important lessons to learn in life. The teaching usually starts early, often finding young children on the sports field, which has long been justified in school as a laboratory for character education. The Duke of Wellington is famously reported to have said that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

The battle for civil society is also being won and lost in part on our playing fields. American democracy succeeds, in no small part, owing to lessons learned on baseball, soccer and football fields across the land. At their best, sports can inculcate crucial democratic values — deference to the rule of law; the ideal of fair play; practical experience with rivalries constrained by time, place and impartial arbitrators; and the peaceful acceptance of defeat.

Democracies have a huge stake in inculcating such values. Particularly important to civil society is how to be a good loser — as we see in countries like Zimbabwe or even in our own after contentious campaigns. But at no time is the civic importance of good sportsmanship more on display than during a post-election transfer of power, such as we witnessed a year ago. 

We expect politicians and political parties, like athletes and athletic teams, to play by the rules. We expect losing candidates to abide by the outcome, however distasteful, rather than resort to violence. We even expect losers to congratulate the winners. And we expect rivals to resume the contest only within carefully contained and structured arenas of engagement. These democratic values all find corollaries in principles of good sportsmanship.

Such civic virtues are not innate. They are learned “habits of the heart,” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s phrase, constitutive of democracy in America. As such, they should be reinforced on every playing field in America. For learning to be a good sport doubles as a civics lesson in learning to play by the rules and learning how to accept defeat.

Historically, it was understood that amateur athletics were supposed to teach such values. Indeed, coaches were hired and admired for their ability to build character and not just for winning records. (Alas, how times have changed!) Chief among the moral lessons to be taught was good sportsmanship, including how to be a gracious winner and a good loser.

Learning how to lose gracefully is not only a civic duty, it is a religious imperative. God designed mortality to ensure “opposition in all things” as the Book of Mormon phrases it. Setbacks and defeats are part of his plan for our perfection. Sometimes we are better off for losing. As Solzhenitsyn observed, “Governments need victories and the people need defeats.” 

A few years ago, the BYU football team adopted a curious motto for its season: “Quest for perfection.” It was borrowed from BYU’s mission statement, but applied to an athletic team, the motto grated on many. It seemed to smack of hubris, like a batter pointing to the fence. People assumed the motto was all about winning. They assumed the emphasis fell on perfection, meaning a perfect season for the team. I am told that this is not what the coaches and players had in mind when they chose this phrase from the mission statement. For them, it spoke to their aspirations to get better. The accent for them fell on the quest.

I don’t know, however, if the coaches and team fully appreciated the painful truth that a quest for perfection might require suffering through an imperfect season — or several. From loss can come growth. This hard, tragic truth belongs to the wisdom of the ages. It was well known by the ancient Greeks, who gave the Western world not only competitive sports and democracy but also tragedy. They understood as Aeschylus put it that “we must suffer, suffer into truth.” They knew that some wisdom can be won only by losing.

Even so, Americans long to win. Hope for victory springs eternal. The drive to win is part of the American dream, part of what makes democracy work. But our quest for perfection often takes a lot of losing along the way. We need leaders who can model lessons we hope the whole country learns often and early on the playing field. For how we react in defeat will shape the health of our country for generations.

John Tanner is the former president of BYU-Hawaii, academic vice president of BYU and English department chairman. He worked at BYU for more than 30 years before serving as mission president in Brazil.