Sports Illustrated should do away with the Sportsman of the Year.
It’s time we stop placing people on a pedestal. It’s time we stop judging a person’s moral character.
It’s time we stop making saints out of the living.
Since the magazine’s inception in 1954, SI has presented the SOY award to “the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.”
It is not a batting or scoring title that can be quantified by a set of numbers. It’s not a Defensive Player of the Year Award that can be judged by a panel of experts in a particular sport. It’s not even a Most Valuable Player Award that uses a combination of statistics, narrative and subjective measures to determine the winner.
The difference with those awards is the person can be perceived as an absolute jerk and win them. If Barry Bonds has a higher batting average than everyone in the league, he still wins the award—even if people in the media are turned off by the way he treats them in the locker room. If LeBron James scores more points than anyone else in the NBA, he wins the award—regardless of what people in Cleveland think about him.
Even an MVP award, which is inherently controversial, does not technically take into account a player’s character. For example, in baseball this year we saw a kerfuffle between the Mike Trout party that favored sabermetric measures like Wins Above Replacement and the Miguel Cabrera party that preferred narrative “he is a Triple Crown winner that willed his team to the World Series,” but few people took character flaws into account.
After all, if baseball’s MVP race was determined by a player’s reputation, it would have been won ubiquitously by Trout, who has an untarnished legal record, over Cabrera, an embattled alcoholic who almost killed two people while driving drunk in April of last year.
The last Triple Crown winner, Carl Yastrzemski, may have been awarded Sportsman of the Year in 1967, but it is unlikely Cabrera will win it this year.
That’s the difference between SOY and most other awards in sports—it is purely subjective. It’s not awarded to the “best athlete;” it is essentially awarded to “the best person in sports” on any given year.
For the most part, the magazine has done a good job of choosing timeless athletes. Unlike in baseball, where Chris Coghlan* of the then-Florida Marlins was chosen over Pittsburgh Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen for the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year, SI has yet to choose a one-hit wonder for SOY.
*To catch you up to speed: Coghlan is currently playing for the Miami Marlins Triple A affiliate in New Orleans. McCutchen got a 6-year, $51.5 million deal with the Pirates last year.
There are many famous sports figures that have won Sportsman of the Year in the past—Stan Musial (1957), Arnold Palmer (1960), Bill Russell (1968), Muhammad Ali (1974), et cetera—but the problem is that SI’s recent angels have fallen from the sky:
1996: Tiger Woods (2x winner)—philandered with adult film stars.
1998: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—linked to steroid usage.
2001: Curt Schilling—exploited people with his video game company.
2002: Lance Armstrong—linked to blood doping.
2007: Brett Favre—sent lewd photos of himself to a team employee.
The most prominent example is the 1986 SOY winner, Joe Paterno. While the late Penn State coach was, and should be, lauded for his player’s high graduation rates, he turned a blind eye toward Jerry Sandusky’s pedophilia late in his career.
After the Freeh report was released, Reilly wrote a mea culpa for his SOY article on Paterno:
What a fool I was.
In 1986, I spent a week in State College, Pa., researching a 10-page Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year piece on Joe Paterno.
It was supposed to be a secret, but one night the phone in my hotel room rang. It was a Penn State professor, calling out of the blue.
"Are you here to take part in hagiography?" he said.
"What's hagiography?" I asked.
"The study of saints," he said. "You're going to be just like the rest, aren't you? You're going to make Paterno out to be a saint. You don't know him. He'll do anything to win. What you media are doing is dangerous."
Jealous egghead, I figured.
What an idiot I was.
That’s the problem with this award: regardless of its original intent, it is interpreted as hagiography. Because it is not grounded in statistical measures and talent evaluation, and takes into account a person’s actions outside the playing surface, it ultimately comes off as a validation of this person’s moral character—a “sainting.”
Don’t get me wrong; SI should continue to feature the good deeds of people in sports. A long story should be enough to validate a person’s contributions to society. They don’t need an additional award for it.
After all, that professor in Reilly’s story is right. We shouldn’t make saints out of the living.