December 17, 2009

Who Are the Top Athletes?

According to the AP, Tiger Woods was the outstanding athlete of the decade.  Also making the top six were Lance Armstrong, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Tom Brady, and Usain Bolt.

Lists like this list highlight the peculiarities of sports journalism.  Sportswriters commonly fixate on particular sports—men’s cycling, say—to the exclusion of others.  When a particular figure dominates the events they cover, their concentration on those events leaves them with the impression that he is the finest competitor in the world today, if not ever.

They are mistaken.  As anyone who has lived, let alone played organized sports, in the South knows, the best athletes are not playing golf.  Or swimming.  Or riding bicycles.

So, for example, although a golfer in my rural Texas high school won a state championship while I was there, no one thought he was the best athlete in school.  That title went to the fellow who later scored two touchdowns for the Redskins in the Super Bowl, Ricky Sanders.

Sanders simply excelled at football.  Perhaps the high point of his high school career came against our school’s arch-rival.  Sanders intercepted a pass on defense, scored a touchdown on offense, and kicked the extra point in undefeated Belton’s 7-0 victory over previously unbeaten Georgetown.  Both teams were in the state’s top ten.  Ricky was a sophomore.

He also made all-region at basketball and placed in three events—virtually without practicing the entire season—in the state track meet.

Football, basketball, and—why not?—track.  Oh, and I recall watching him loft pitch after softball pitch over the fence at the local baseball field one day.

He didn’t play tennis.  Or swim.  (Swim?  There wasn’t a single school in our district with a pool!)  Or race a bike.  (As I understand it, Texas-born Armstrong took up cycling only after failing at football.)

Why not?  As our head football coach put it one day at practice, gesturing toward the nearby tennis courts, where our school’s team was practicing, “If those guys were men, they’d be out here.”

A few of my teammates and I mocked the coach for this for the rest of my senior season.  “That Jimmy Connors is such a wimp,” I’d laugh as we ran past the tennis players.  “Yeah,” Paul Thorpe chimed in, “and so is Bjorn Borg.”  Yet, the coach’s comment captured an attitude that is very widespread in most of the country.

The finest American athletes play football, basketball, and—to a lesser extent—baseball.  That’s where the money is.  That’s where the fame is.  That’s the macho thing to do.  (Yes, some of them moonlight at track.  Bolt clearly deserves attention, but only because of the extent to which he has improved the world-record times in the sport’s glamor events—the ones every kid has tried.)

As to Woods:  his game is closer to athletic competition than darts, chess, or bowling, I suppose, but to call him a superior athlete to Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady or Ray Lewis is absurd.  To throw in Lance Armstrong and Roger Federer among the list of athletes finer than Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez is simply to ignore the fact that the best athletes play the glamor games.  I’m betting that not one of those guys took up football, basketball, or baseball because he first failed at cycling.

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