On Sunday, millions of Americans will be united in watching the Super Bowl. Across divisions of income, politics, ethnic background and even gender, people will gather with friends and family to devour nachos, comment on commercials and admire exceptional athleticism.
Like other sporting events, the Super Bowl is, by its nature, competitive. As a culture, we value competition because it spurs people to excel in ways that they might not otherwise achieve. Yet, it is also worth nothing that high level competition is invariably made possible by high level cooperation.
The NFL is a complex cooperative system that works hard to distribute benefits to or players, owners, fans, broadcasters and advertisers. Like any voluntary system, it has to create mechanisms that give participants confidence that benefits for others won’t preclude the benefits they seek. And, if there are risks, they must be worthwhile, given likely benefits and costs. Without this cooperative framework, the Super Bowl would not be as satisfying as it is. Here are just two examples of how cooperation enhances competition:
A game in which grown men knock each other down will inevitably involve risk.The NFL minimizes that risk by making rules about how players can interact and revising them as new vulnerabilities become clear. The horse collar rule, for example, was put into effect after a particularly brutal season in which it became clear that pulling a player down by grabbing at his jersey created a greater risk of broken bones.
The league also specifies the kind of protective equipment players must wear—no one will show up at Sunday’s game without an approved helmet. The teams themselves also institute training and medical regimens designed to protect players from serious harms. These rules and procedures cannot eliminate risk but they can increase players’ confidence that, by stepping onto the field, they make a reasonable bargain.
Preventing unfair advantage
The NFL has also created a complex system of regulation that assures what is commonly called a level playing field. The goal, of course, is not to equalize the teams themselves. Each team is made up of players and coaches with specific abilities. One team might have players who are unusually fast. Another may have a coach who is exceptional at instilling discipline. Games are interesting precisely because each team tries to make the best possible use of the unique resources that their personnel, training and good fortune make available to them on a given day in a particular stadium.
Rules are designed to be sure that there is a common understanding of what is permitted. A player who starts off the line of scrimmage just slightly ahead of other players has an advantage. So does someone who grabs at the face mask of another player. Teams voluntarily agree to abide by the rules and to accept penalties when violations occur. Referees need to be as impartial as possible. By seeing to it that everyone is held to the same standard, they give players as well as fans confidence that the contest is fair.
Obviously, these cooperative underpinnings do not change the fundamentals of competition. In Sunday’s contest, one team will prevail and one will be defeated. There is, after all, only one Lombardi trophy and only one team can lay claim to it. Yet, even in victory, we are likely to glimpse cooperative spirit. The victors will, in all likelihood, have sincere praise for the talents and efforts of their opponents. Members of the losing team will congratulate the winners and then go to work analyzing what happened in the hope of being more competitive in their next encounter.
This kind of mutual respect is, of course, a crucial part of cooperation, but it also makes competition more rewarding. The goal of competition is not to obliterate or humiliate an opponent. Instead, competition gives us an opportunity to test our ideas about how to reach specific goals. Wise competitors appreciate strong opponents because they probe our strategies, reveal the weaknesses in our assumptions and inspire us to work harder.
Obviously, sports is not the only setting in which we prize competition. Students may compete for grades. Companies compete for market share. Politicians compete for votes. In every case, competition is likely to yield the best results when cooperative norms create a well-defined structure. Before throwing ourselves into competition, it’s wise to ask some questions: Are there rules that minimize risk for participants? Can we count on impartial referees to enforce the rules? Are we operating within a context of mutual respect?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, competition is likely to be corrupted by suspicion and cheating. The best competition occurs within a well-designed cooperative framework that assures safety, fairness and respect. Even the Super Bowl benefits from Cooperative Wisdom!