Saturday, July 17, 2010

The power and the glory

The power and the glory. It's an odd phrase, but one that's popped up everywhere over time, from a doxology added to the Lord's Prayer by the Byzantines to a 1933 Spencer Tracy film that may have been the inspiration for Citizen Kane, from the title of Graham Greene's famous novel to a line in Dire Straits' Walk of Life (above). The phrase tells us a lot about life, and about sports as well.

Power and glory, at their heart, are rather different concepts. Power at its core is the ability to do things; in physics, it represents the rate at which work is done. Glory is more about recognition of a great acheivement. The two can be combined, with power providing the means to accomplish something great and glory following once the task is completed. Yet, power also often carries a negative connotation, as in the Orwellian theme that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus, certain usages of power can reduce the glory associated with a goal.

I was thinking about this this week in the wake of George Steinbrenner's passing. Joe Posnanski wrote a great piece on Steinbrenner's mixed legacy, and I think it encapsulates what I'm trying to get at here. Steinbrenner found great results, as the Yankees claimed seven World Series titles and 11 American League pennants under his reign, but the glory he might have acheived from such an accomplishment was at least partially diminished by the nefarious forms of power he utilized over the years, from a conviction for making illegal donations to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign to paying a shady gambler to dig up information on one of his own stars, Dave Winfield. For much of Steinbrenner's reign, the Yankees also took extreme advantage of their market and their brand, buying the best stars and keeping higher payrolls than everyone else. None of these things reduce the numbers of titles the Yankees won, but as Scott Stinson writes, they need to go into the final evaluation of Steinbrenner's tenure. He wasn't all good and he wasn't all bad, but the glory he might otherwise have achieved was reduced by the power he used to get it.

The same perhaps rings true for LeBron James and his decision to go to Miami to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Bruce Arthur had a good piece on that today, about how both the decision and the clumsy way James made it may reduce the glory of whatever he accomplishes in Miami. I'm not fully on board with taking him out of the greatest-player-ever discussion just yet, as he still has a lot of basketball to play, but the point that it's much easier to win with the likes of Wade and Bosh is well-taken. By joining up with them, James has perhaps increased his championship power but decreased his potential glory.

It's much harder to come at it the opposite way, but it has been done over the years. Some of the most memorable moments in sports have featured teams without a lot of power that have gone on to achieve great glory. Posnanski related the tale of one of the most notable the other day, about the 1942 Ukranian soccer team that took on the occupying Nazis and refused to lose despite the consequences.

That's probably the most significant example, considering the political power imbalance involved, but there have been plenty of others in the beautiful game, including the Americans' 1950 win over England, Uruguay's triumph over Brazil in the final that year, the 1954 Miracle of Bern, Senegal's victory over France in 2002 and Greece claiming the European chamionship in 2004. In other sports, there's the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the Jets' victory in Super Bowl III, the Giants over the Patriots, Appalachian State over Michigan, and many more. All these upsets have stood out more over time than the years where the dominant team won, and to me, that shows how important acheiving glory without much power can be. Power often brings results, but perhaps the best results and the deepest glories come without the exercise of a lot of power.

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