Graceful Losers

36 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2013 Last revised: 23 Jan 2015

See all articles by John Martinez

John Martinez

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law

Date Written: September 15, 2013


Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Green Bay Packers is supposed to have said, "Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser." He despised good losers. Vince Lombardi notwithstanding, however, good losers are indispensable to a civilized society and should be encouraged to lose with grace and equanimity. We can’t all be winners all the time. Somebody has to come in second, third or last. But in order for there to be winners, other people must willingly participate. We need to encourage losers to accept their status and to keep playing the game.

Examples of "loser" situations abound: former slave owners lost the economic value of their slaves when slavery was abolished in the United States; white South Africans lost their privileged status after the end of apartheid; and European Union countries like Greece that overspent their budgets must deprive their citizens of a lifestyle financed by public overspending.

How losers react to disappointment is crucial to the well-being of the systems in which they participate. Three familiar loser responses are voice, exit and illegality. In the slaveowner example, the Southern States first tried to exercise "voice" to influence federal policy, subsequently exercised "exit" by seceding from the Union, and ultimately exercised "illegality" by fighting the Civil War.

A fourth loser response is "acceptance," defined as the willing incurrence of loss, a contribution to society through self-sacrifice -- or more prosaically -- the "lump-it" alternative. In the slaveowner setting, former slaveowners never “accepted” the abolition of ownership of people. In contrast, in the end-of-apartheid setting, white South Africans have arguably "accepted" the loss of their privileged status. It remains to be seen whether Greece will ultimately accept the harsh reality of substantial budgetary and economic restrictions.

Organizations and social systems in general thus have a strong interest in encouraging "acceptance" behavior by losers. No existing theory, however, addresses the need to encourage losers to choose acceptance and the concomitant need to be fair to losers. This article fills that gap by proposing a metatheory whereby the American legal system encourages people to accept their losses while also ensuring that losers are treated fairly, according to a principle of justice as equality. The article suggests that the proposed metatheory should be implemented by the United States Supreme Court under the Due Process and Equal Protection provisions of the federal constitution.

Keywords: Acceptance, Exit, Voice, Illegality, Fairness, Civic Duty, Metatheory, Altruism

JEL Classification: D63, D64, D78, D81, D84, K42, R52

Suggested Citation

Martinez, John, Graceful Losers (September 15, 2013). 5 Ala. Civ. Rts. & Civ. Liberties L. Rev. 179 (2014), Available at SSRN: or

John Martinez (Contact Author)

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States

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