Ballon d'Or, Heisman and SPOTY: The Ups and Downs of Awards Season

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo looking uncomfortable to say the least at the 2012 Ballon d'Or award ceremony.
Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo looking uncomfortable to say the least at the 2012 Ballon d'Or award ceremony.Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

This past Monday the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2013 nominations were announced. Joining perennial nominees Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo was Franck Ribery, with the Frenchman recognised for his leading role in Bayern Munich's treble success last season.

The winner of this and other FIFA awards will not be revealed until 13 January. In the meantime, you can expect the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry to be debated until the cows come home. There is a strong possibility Ribery will be overshadowed despite enjoying greater success with his club team this year than either of La Liga's big two.

As Bleacher Report's Andy Brassell wrote earlier this week, this vote could actually be pretty close. More notable contributions—arguably anyway—from these individuals on the international stage than in previous years have certainly added a little extra intrigue to the annual competition.

Still, it can be hard to get excited in the present about this and other sporting awards. With due respect to Ribery's role in the Ballon d'Or discussion this year, the yearly narrative of Messi vs. Ronaldo looks like it will take precedence again.

Living in an era when two supremely talented players are lighting up the game in both statistics and memories should not be taken for granted. Especially when—as talismans for Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively—their productivity has such a direct effect on each other's fortunes.

Nonetheless, the pitting of them against each other, beyond what it means for their respective teams, has grown tiresome (that is saying something considering the wearying lows El Clasico has descended to in recent years).

Both players have firmly been in the discussion for the title of "best player in the world" since both placed in the Ballon d'Or's top three in 2007. Messi has won it consecutively since Ronaldo's sole victory in 2008, but generally speaking, you could argue for either player in most years.

The emergence of new stars like Gareth Bale and Neymar could change things over the next few years. But beyond injury or illness affecting proceedings, it is difficult to see the aforementioned duo shrinking from the limelight.

If repetitiveness is the Ballon d'Or's issue right now, spare a thought for the all-or-nothing world of American college football and its own prestigious crown: the Heisman Trophy.

Named after former player and coach John Heisman, the award—as described by the Heisman Trust's official website—"annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity."

Florida State's Jameis Winston has dealt with allegations of sexual assault against him in the midst of a successful year for both himself and his team.
Florida State's Jameis Winston has dealt with allegations of sexual assault against him in the midst of a successful year for both himself and his team.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The 2013 winner is announced on Saturday. Player turnover in collegiate sports ensures that the same names turning up beyond two or three years is not the problem. It is safe to say, though, that the history-rich award (it dates back to 1935) has had a tough year.

Unlike the Ballon d'Or, Heisman voters have not had the comparative luxury of choosing between two or three clear-cut candidates. Potential nominees have dropped by the wayside, undermined by disappointing showings or key losses suffered by their respective teams in their 12- or 13-game season.

Exceptions for outstanding individuals in less dominant teams can be made—as was the case when Paul Hornung won it despite Notre Dame's record of two wins and eight losses in 1956.

Generally, though, excellence is measured by success here to even finer margins. This is demonstrated by the front-runner for this year's Heisman, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who is all but crowned already despite a further five finalists being recognised, too.

In the process of leading his team to an undefeated season (the Seminoles will play Auburn University for the BCS National Championship in January), something altogether more problematic, and indeed troubling, emerged. It was revealed Winston was part of a delayed investigation into a case of sexual assault in which he was accused, dating back to 2012.

As reported by Yahoo Sports' Nick Bromberg, the case against the highly rated 19-year-old was dropped last week after Florida state attorney Willie Meggs deemed "there was not sufficient evidence to proceed with the case."

Man of the people: Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Man of the people: Sir Bradley Wiggins.Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

While the award pales into comparison with the seriousness of such allegations, the whole affair has undoubtedly tarnished Winston's procession to his likely Heisman victory.

With information relating to the initial incident still emerging—such as the original 911 call to police from the complainant's friend, here via Jennifer Portman of the Tallahassee Democrat via USA Today—college football will not get to celebrate its best player in quite the fashion it would have liked.

You can sympathise with voters debating the merits of sporting achievement against off-field concerns and questions of character. The annual, public-voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year faces a similar predicament, albeit in rather more quaint and altogether less serious fashion.

The title award of the annual ceremony (this year's takes place on Sunday) celebrating the best of British sports originally used the word personality as a slightly more descriptive, "carefully chosen" gender-neutral term than sportsperson—as revealed by former programme editor Sir Paul Cox in the BBC's recent retrospective show celebrating the event's 60th anniversary this year.

Along with regular people getting to decide who wins out of the nominations, it has forever ensured SPOTY has a more populist slant than some awards, capturing the zeitgeist of sporting achievement, as well as a particular fondness for certain personalities.

For instance, take last year's winner, cyclist Bradley Wiggins—an Olympic gold medalist and Tour de France winner with a penchant for mod culture and a refreshing bluntness.

Negotiating a "sports for all!" mindset with questionable decisions is harder for the more seriously sports-minded among us. Nice an idea as it was for SPOTY to give its Team of the Year award to Team GB off the back of London 2012, it was not actually a team. Not in the way Jose Maria Olazabal's heroic Ryder Cup-winning Europe team actually was.

The Spaniard's previous involvement at the ceremony was a reminder as to why cynicism is—if possible—best avoided around these things. In 2009 Olazabal presented the SPOTY Lifetime Achievement Award to his friend, the legendary golfer Seve Ballesteros.

The multi-time major winner was in the midst of a battle with brain cancer that would cost him his life in 2011. Here, though, with one of his closest associates, he was recognised for contributions to golf that had transcended far beyond his native Spain. As seen in the video (right), the emotions felt by all were palpable.

Sports would be a lot poorer for the absence of these awards. For all their considerable flaws, the extra opportunity to celebrate greatness should be welcome (albeit, not always without questioning the subjects).

They are snapshots of history. And with the Ballon d'Or being 57, the Heisman about to recognise its 78th winner and SPOTY its 60th, they are certainly moments we want to make the effort to remember.