Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing
Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer
Out of Their League
Player of the Year
The City Game
“If we do not like the survival of the fittest we have only one alternative and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of anti-civilization.”—William Graham Sumner, as cited in Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought
“I wasn’t one of Vince’s favorites at Green Bay. When I hurt my knee in a scrimmage before the 1966 season he yelled, ‘Drag him off the field and let’s get on with the scrimmage.’ “—Bob Long recalls his initiation in Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing
The idea that football survives as our last undisputed expression of the Social Darwinism of Spencer and Sumner seems first to have drawn the attention of George Sauer, Jr., wide receiver of the New York Jets, while he was reading Eldridge Cleaver:
Our mass spectator sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving. (Soul on Ice, p. 86)
Sauer has since occupied the void between seasons with refining that notion. His search for the origin of a credo set and never questioned in its church has carried him back, he told me, to the Yale of 1890 where Sumner taught the laws of society and Coach Walter Camp the rules of the game, and where each great preceptor preached from the principle of natural selection.1
Sumner had hardly enunciated his doctrine before having it disputed by Lester Ward and Henry George. But in Camp’s discipline the creed has gone so long without challenge that even now one is shocked to recognize a faint crack in the rock when one of the seven works under discussion appears to decry its fundamentals. That two of the other books should be attacked as heretical is only a mark of the ultra-montanisme of this church: Johnny Sample and Jim Bouton, the displaced Yankee pitcher, complain about the priesthood but they swallow the Revelation entire. Only Dave Meggyesy, the St. Louis linebacker who walked away from the game, can truly be called an apostate among these witnesses.
Meggyesy tells us that athletes call persons who fawn upon them “jocksniffers,” Jock-sniffing is so fixedly the donnée of sports literature that even the memoirs of professionals are often a protracted sniffing of their jocks. Los Angeles quarterback Roman Gabriel’s journal of his 1969 season has, for example, room in it for subjects of such uniform enthusiasm as Mrs. Gabriel’s Christmas present (“a hair-styling comb and brush set…I’m going to take to Minneapolis tomorrow [for a championship game] because it’s equipped with a blower, [and] the heat styles your hair at the same time you blow it”); the dedication of Johnny Unitas (“They had asked him to go to Vietnam that winter, but he turned them down. ‘I wanted $1 million of insurance,’ he told me, ‘and they wouldn’t go for it’….He’s a player’s player always alert…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.