When Did Great Get Such A Bad Name?
Watching the super horse Justify cruise to the Triple Crown this past weekend by winning the Belmont Stakes in New York City was a sublime moment for lovers of sports. The three-year-old became just the 13th horse in the modern history of American thoroughbred racing to win the three jewels of racing’s Triple Crown.
In a sports world overflowing with superlatives— many of them unwarranted— his gallop to glory is worthy of all the praise Justify earned. He defeated 35 horses in the three legs of his Triple Crown win, more than any horse in history. He was also just the second horse in modern history to win the Triple Crown without racing as a two-year-old.
And yet there were still some who wanted to disparage the accomplishment because it came just three years after the immortal American Pharoah won a Triple Crown. Or won in a slower time than the mighty Secretariat in 1973. That, plus the lack of a legitimate rival is thought to have diminished Justify’s wonderful triumph in the eyes of some critics.
But then, casting shade on great sports accomplishments seems in vogue these days. When the Golden State Warriors swept LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers a couple of days before Justify’s triumph it was met with a similar “meh”. To many, the fact that the Warriors and Cavs met in the NBA Final series four years in a row has somehow lessened the Warriors’ feat.
Critics disparage the “super team” assembled by the Warriors, who boast superstars in Kevin Durant and Steph Curry along with brilliant players Draymond Green and Klay Thomson. They say the NBA Eastern Conference is weak. They say the Warriors got lucky drafting Curry and Co. after a run of lousy teams. Whatever.
But most of all they say they’re bored by the same teams meeting so often in the NBA Final. They whine, can’t we see someone else for a change? They also point to the fact that the TV ratings for the four-game wipeout (which featured just one classic game) were down 11 percent from the 2017 Final between the same squads. Although the absence of drama can be attributed to the sweep that unfolded after Cleveland’s J.R. Smith lost track of the score in the final seconds of Game One.
If I might speak for the Warriors… excuuuuse me. When is greatness supposed to take a back seat to parity, the bastard child of bloated team sports in North America? Should they have to play with a hand tied behind their back to even things up? (Some Cavs fans might suggest that the squad LeBron James was saddled with in the 2018 postseason was the equivalent of him playing handicapped.)
More to the point: Do fans reminisce about single-shot winners of the past? How about fluke teams that sneak through to a title or a Stanley Cup? Of course not. Some team has to win every year, and often they’re less than brilliant. Think of the rag-tag New York Giants upsetting the unbeaten New England Patriots in 2012. Or the unlikely Florida Marlins winning the World Series from the Yankees in 2003. Then there were the unsung 2006 Carolina Hurricanes taking the Stanley Cup from Edmonton.
Hey, stick happens. But who’s talking about them now?
The yardstick used by real sports fans has always been sustained greatness. The eight straight titles won by the Boston Celtics in the 1950s/ 60s. The four straight Stanley Cups of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. The New York Yankees’ six World Series titles from 1996-2003. The Detroit Red Wings grabbed four Stanley Cup from 1997 to 2007.
In the NFL you have the Pittsburgh Steelers dominant Super Bowl winners in the 1970s. Or the Dallas Cowboys winning three of four Super Bowls from 1993 to 1996. And then there are the current New England Patriots with four Super Bowl appearances from 2012 to the present.
There’s a reason ESPN has a Classics channel and it’s not to show the forgettable.
In Europe fans are happy to see the great names of soccer win multiple league championships and European titles. No one seems cheated when Real Madrid or Manchester United or Bayern Munich win multiple titles. (Or when Rafael Nadal wins 11 French Opens.)
But sustained greatness now seems insufficient for North American sports fans. It’s understandable they might be confused, of course. The leagues themselves have been preaching the concept of parity as nirvana for decades now.
Perhaps it’s the instant gratification provided by social media that has cheapened the concept of greatness. Cheap thrills being fun for about 15 minutes. The internet has allowed the cranks of the world to fund each other and reinforce their screeds.
But let’s not sacrifice greatness on the altar of novelty. It’s rude to Justify’s greatness. And Secretariat would not approve.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand will be available this fall.