In the midst of an otherwise insightful column on the demise of sportsmanship, Burt Prelutsky has this clunker:
Those days [of Bobby Jones and good sportsmanship] seem very long ago. Since then, we've seen the canonization of Vince Lombardi, whose inane comment that "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" has come to be regarded as being every bit as inspirational as the Sermon on the Mount.
No, no, no!!! What Lombardi meant is the exact opposite of what Prelutsky (and others) ususally take it to mean. Prelutsky implies that it means "anything goes" in the pursuit of victory, including cheating. Lombardi would be horrified to hear that his famous phrase was interpreted in this fashion. Lombardi clearly meant it to mean that "the struggle and work in pursuit of victory and trying to win was the only thing"--i.e., if you are going to play, you should play your hardest to win and challenge yourself to the maximum of your strength, character, and abilities, rather than dogging it. This means working hard every day and sacrificing for the team goal of winning. The phrase has since been transformed into the meaning that Prelutsky ascribes to it.
Here's the way that David Maraniss puts it in his wonderful biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered (strongly recommended):
What he said, or meant to say, [Lombardi's supporters have] claimed, was that winning isn't everything, it's the only thing worth striving for, or winning isn't everything, but making the effort to win is.
[T]here was a crucial distinction in his philosophy between paying the price to win and winning at any price. He did not bleive in cheating to win, and he whowed no interest in winning that wrong way, without heart, brains and sportsmanship. Although he never shied away from the violence of the game, insisting that football was "not a contact sport, but a colision sport," he did not encourage dirty play.... Winning in and of itself was not enough for him. His players knew taht he was more likely to drive them mercilessly after they ahd played sloppily but won than when they had played hard but lost.
The fact that Lombardi's words have been twisted over time says more about the generations that succeeded Lombardi than it does about Lombardi.
For what its worth, I have always been intrigued by Maraniss's decision to write a biography of Lombardi after his famous biography of President Clinton. I suspect that the explanation may lie in this discussion--I think Maraniss sees Lombardi as personifying his generation (God, country, family, duty, discipline) in the same way that he sees Clinton as the personification of generation (Baby Boom). So they are really generational studies told through the lens of particular individuals.
The transition between these two generations may also help to explain the change in the interpretation of Lombardi's famous expression over time. Incidentally, in the book Maraniss tells a fascinating story about how that famous phrase made it to Lombardi's lips.
Sorry, I forgot to link the article originally. It is now hyperlinked.