The Dallas Cowboys’ Duane Thomas did his level best to put the Super Bowl in perspective. Having grown weary of a seemingly endless stream on inane questions, he finally posed one of his own: “If it’s the ultimate game, how come they’re playing it again next year?”
Thomas rushed for 95 yards on 19 carries in Super Bowl VI and was, as Hunter S. Thompson commented, ‘the whole show’ in the Cowboys’ 24-3 demolition of the Miami Dolphins. Sport Magazine did not award him the MVP Award because he was boycotting the media. He did, however, consent to one brief post-game interview. After CBS’s Tom Brookshire asked, “Are you really as fast and as elusive as you seem?” Thomas simply said, “Evidently.”
Thomas’s comments suggest that actions speak louder than words, even if there is a PR cost, and that there is no such thing as a final climax. Perhaps Thomas read the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that life is absurd and that there are no final victories.
The Frenchman argued that there are three forms of bad faith, all of which athletes would do well to avoid.
The first is what he called bad faith in-itself, which is the attempt to define one’s self by past achievements or failures. Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, and the loot that comes with it, because he believed a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution. Sportsmen like to wax on about how playing well is more important than winning or losing, but I will not hold my breath waiting for someone to refuse one of those gaudy Super Bowl rings. Luxuriating in an achievement may sound appealing, but Sartre warns that doing so may well lull that person into complacency.
Letting past failures define you is also an example of bad faith in-itself. The Brooklyn Dodgers lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in ’41, ’47, ’49, ’52 and ’53, but they never conceded that the fates favored the Yankees, and they finally won their first Series ever in ’55.
Of course, they lost to the Bronx Bombers in ’56, prompting one of the great headlines ever: “Wait Till Last Year.”
The same sense of perseverance defined the Denver Broncos, who finally won their first Super Bowl after four failures. Too bad about the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills. Sartre might have warned that past failures are certainly no guarantee of future success, either.
More importantly, bad faith in-itself suggests that the future is always open. Bad habits can be transformed into dedication or dedication can degenerate into contented laziness. Peyton Manning has arguably been the most consistently excellent quarterback in NFL history, but, like everyone else, he will have to prove his worth again next season. And if he plays poorly Sunday, the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately chorus will be in full voice.
The second existential sin is what Sartre calls bad faith for-itself, which is the mistake of presuming that you have already changed before actually having done so, for example, you have no right to call yourself a recovering alcoholic until you have abstained from drinking for a long spell. In sports, you see this every offseason when some fading player signs a free agent contract and asserts that he has rediscovered his passion for the sport he plays. That may prove to be true, but Sartre’s point is that you have no business proclaiming profound change until you actually go out and live it. New England running back Stevan Ridley might get over his fumbleitus, but we—and more importantly, he—should remain skeptical until he protects the ball for a couple of seasons..
The final form of bad faith is what Sartre calls being for for-itself-in-itself. This is the mistake of thinking that the final chapter has been written while the game of life, or one’s career, is still in progress. This may sound paradoxical, but Sartre claims, “We are condemned to be free.” We have no choice but to think about what we are going to do next. This is why one of the first questions Manning will be asked if the Broncos win is, “Do you think you will repeat next season?” The present, Sartre rightly points out, instantly becomes the past. And you have no choice but to angst over your future plans.
Thomas was right: There is no such thing as the ultimate game, either on or off the field, Life may indeed be absurd, but we play season after season—with all the hype we can summon—because there is still the possibility of being thrilled by victory or agonized by defeat.