Platonic joy in competition for the sake of itself

Last night, the John J. Lee Amphitheater played host to three basketball games: the championship contests for each of Yale’s three levels of intramural men’s basketball. As I write, the games haven’t happened yet. I don’t know who won, how many people watched, whether the games were exciting or dull. And it doesn’t matter.

At Yale, it can seem like the results of everything we do are supremely important. We go to a school that takes pride in and teaches its students to embrace its selectivity. Before any of us arrives on campus, we’ve done well in the competitive atmosphere of college admissions; we’ve excelled either academically, or athletically, or become more accomplished at some meaningful skill than nearly everyone else around us. Quite a few people here found a high school teacher who was eager to write a letter containing some variation on the phrase “This student is one of the best I’ve ever taught.”

All of us — simply by virtue of the fact that we got in to Yale — succeeded in high school where others failed. We “won,” so to speak. Our acceptance letter is our trophy. And now that we’re here, many of us continue to compete. We all know that Goldman Sachs and BCG can’t offer an internship to everyone who applies, so we cram for the case interview. There isn’t enough money for every undergrad to get that sweet summer research grant. There isn’t enough room for all of us in the entering classes of the top medical and law schools in the country. In any given course, there aren’t enough As for everyone who wants one. All of these things — the grades, the jobs, the fellowships — matter to us. Losing them hurts.

The results of last night’s intramural basketball games don’t matter. No one’s future is at stake. Yale varsity basketball coach James Jones probably wasn’t sitting in the stands looking for his next starting point guard last night. No one had a job, or a grade, or even much of a reputation at stake in any of the games. The winning teams will receive IM Champion T-shirts, but I defy anyone who played to say they were in it for the T-shirt. Most of the players were out there because they love basketball (even in its turnover-filled, rec-league form), or because they love throwing a ball around with their teammates, or because they wanted to compete hard for something and — win or lose — be able to joke about it the next day.

Sheer competition, for nothing more than its own sake, can have a lot of value. At Yale, it’s easy to see competition as a means to an end. Competition can serve as a motivator to put in another hour of study or to edit that cover letter one more time. But it can also be an end in and of itself. It can be an escape from the constant and sometimes painful grind. It can be all the reason someone needs to dive for a loose ball, even if the results of the scramble will be unremembered ten minutes later, as the entire game will be in a few short days.

Yale can’t help but be a breeding ground for a bit of unhealthy competition. Throw a few thousand wildly successful people into an environment with limited resources and a bit of social Darwinism might be inevitable. Throw a few dozen of those people onto an intramural basketball court and they’ll fight like hell for an hour to win. They’ll grumble at the referees, sprint for loose balls, maybe throw an elbow or two. They’ll play to win. And one team will win. One team won’t.

Last night, three teams won and three teams didn’t. But no matter the scoreboard, each game ended the same way. Both teams briefly cheered to the other. Everyone shook hands. And, hopefully, every player walked away gratified by the opportunity to sweat for an hour under the illusion that the game meant something real and glad, at some level, that it did not. Ultimately, I hope that everyone involved woke up this morning thinking not about wins and losses or points and turnovers but about the sheer joy of competing. Maybe that’s overly idealistic. But it’s an ideal that Yale could use a bit more of.

Xan White is a junior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

Comments

  • parent of an incoming freshman, class of 2012

    I really enjoyed your column. It was well-written.