Rivalry and Competition (Or, the World Serious)

The time of the World Serious, as Bullwinkle and others called it, is a good time to reflect on why someone like me who doesn’t like rivalry is a baseball fan. I was raised in the Detroit era when Al Kaline was a star, so maybe that has something to do with it. Obviously, I can’t expect God to favor one team or another. More obviously, we need to keep games in perspective. Winning the World Serious is not as important increasing social justice for economically challenged people I have come to see a distinction between rivalry and competition. Rivalry is centered on the rival, making the rival an idol, in an attempt to win at the rival’s (and other people’s) expense. Competition can be undergirded by a deeper cooperation. For example, competitors in a game collaborate to create a well-played game that is fun for the participants, such as playing tennis or golf with friends, or playing professional baseball games that give fans pleasure along with some agony when my team blows a big lead in the last inning. Perhaps this distinction is of some use in economic issues as well. Capitalist theory tends to encourage completion as beneficial to the public good because companies that try to have the best product at the best price will deliver quality to the consumer. It is hard to see how as many useful and fun innovations would have been created without the spur of competition. I am skeptical, though, about Adam Smith’s contention that an “invisible hand” makes selfish motifs contribute to a sound and fair economy. Divine Providence surely is about a benevolent God fostering divine benevolence in humanity. However, the line between constructive competition and destructive rivalry can be very thin. Baseball games sometimes descend into brawlgames where pitchers throwing at opposing batters tit-for-tat. Likewise, competition can be cutthroat when companies only want to destroy other companies. I could go on with quite a rant about the toxic atmosphere of American politics when politicians should be collaborating to discern how to work for the public good, but aren’t. If it is all about winning, then it is toxic rivalry. If it’s about having fun with others, then it is healthy competition. When we fall into the middle, we have some spiritual work to do.  We need to remember the words of St. Paul that we don’t run for a wreathe that will wither, but for a prize that never fades.

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