Kissing Your Sister


Americans are thought to dislike ties, frequently quoting Navy football coach Eddie Erdilach, who in 1953 said, after a tied game between Navy and Duke, that a tie was like kissing your sister. But why are ties so reviled?

(And what does this say about Erdilach’s relationship with his sister?)

Of the FEPS criteria, the one that militates most clearly against allowing ties to happen is spectacle. Much of the appeal of watching sport is that each event tells a story. And people generally don’t like stories with ambiguous endings, like the famous Frank Stockton short story, “The Lady, or the Tiger?”

You’d think that a tie would be a much more satisfactory result from standpoint of participation. If the game was well played on both sides, and the competitors respect each other, a draw would seem to be a more just result than a win. You often hear a comment along the lines of, “It was a great game – it’s a shame someone had to lose.” So why isn’t it OK to accept a result in which no one does lose?

I think there are two strands to the answer. The first is captured by a quotation from another American football coach, “Red” Sanders of UCLA, about the same date as the Erdilach quote: “Winning isn’t everything … it’s the only thing.” (Sanders is also recorded as saying “Beating ‘SC isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.”) The Sanders saying, frequently attributed to Green Bay Packer’s coach Vince Lombardi, who was fond of repeating it, seems to capture something about the American ethic of sport. It’s a complete rejection of Grantland Rice’s dictum that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

The second reason, I suspect, is that the increasing popularity of spectator sport has caused many participants to take on the values of the spectator. We frequently hear professional athletes saying something like “I gave it everything I had, because I didn’t want to disappoint the fans”. The need to tell a satisfying story is the need of an entertainer rather than a participant, and professional athletes increasingly see themselves as entertainers rather than as sportsmen.


Whatever the reason, the growing abhorrence of ambiguous results has had a profound effect on the way that many games and sports are played. I’ll explore some of those in tomorrow’s post.

3 thoughts on “Kissing Your Sister”

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