Friday, December 27, 2013

SI Got It Right: Peyton Manning IS the Sportsman of the Year

Peyton Manning is one of the top 10 quarterbacks of all time. He is a World Champion, could well win another title this season, and probably would have won at least 1 more Super Bowl had Bill Belichick not been an unrepentant cheater. Although he and his family are regular Republican donors, and he does commercials for the deeply evil "Papa John" Schnatter, he and his family are generous and seem like genuinely nice people.

And, this past season, at the age of 37, in the process of helping the Denver Broncos win the AFC West, he broke the single-season record for touchdown passes. So, yes, beyond any doubt, he is a legitimate candidate for Sportsman of the Year, for Sports Illustrated magazine or anyone else.

But, again, he's 37. This is his 15th season in the NFL -- his 16th if you count missing all of 2011 after neck surgery. He's had better seasons, including 2006, which he capped by leading the Indianapolis Colts to win Super Bowl XLI in February 2007.

In calendar year 2006, SI gave SOTY to Dwayne Wade, for leading the Miami Heat to their first NBA Championship. Was he a better choice than Manning? Possibly, as the big achievement came in the following calendar year.

Terry Bradshaw (1979, shared with Willie Stargell), Joe Montana (1990), Tom Brady (2005), Brett Favre (2007) and Drew Brees (2010) are NFL quarterbacks who've received the award. Until manning, Favre was the only one who did not get it in a calendar year in which he'd won a Super Bowl. In 2007, a year which effectively began with Manning's long-awaited Super Bowl win, Favre captivated the nation with the story of his spectacular Monday Night Football game the day after his father passed away. It was also a year in which he broke some career records for quarterbacks, some of which Manning now holds, or likely will hold (unless he decides he's had enough and hangs 'em up after this great season).

SI has done "lifetime achievement awards" for its SOTY before:

* 1957: Stan Musial. Stan the Man, a serious candidate for the title of best hitter in National League history, and definitely the best in his own generation, did have a great individual season at age 37. So did his counterpart in the American League in his generation, Ted Williams, then 39. But neither one won the Pennant. In contrast, another candidate for the title of best hitter in NL history, Hank Aaron, not only led his team to win the World Series, but hit a walkoff home run to win the Pennant-clinching game. So why Stan, and not Hank? Was it age -- Hank was just 23? Or was it... No, it probably wasn't race: The next year, SI chose a black man as Sportsman of the Year, track star Rafer Johnson. But Hank was still a better choice than Stan. So was Mickey Mantle, whose Yankees were beaten by Hank's Milwaukee Braves in the Series. So was Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to their first NBA title.

* 1968: Bill Russell. By this point, Russell had won 10 NBA titles, 2 NCAA titles, and an Olympic Gold Medal. So, why now? Actually, this one was fully justified: He had just completed his 2nd season as the first black head coach in major league sports, and won the 1st title by a black coach. (Sort of: In the NFL's first season, 1920, Fritz Pollard was player-coach of the title-winning Akron Pros. But calling the NFL "major league" at that point was a bit of a stretch.) As it turned out, like a lot of player-coaches, Russell the coach didn't do to well without himself as a player.

* 1972: John Wooden, shared with Billie Jean King, making her the first Sportswoman of the Year and the pairing the first shared award. That BJK deserved to be considered is clear. But Wooden had won 6 NCAA titles before taking his 7th in the year in question. Why this time? I could understand choosing Sandy Koufax in '65, Carl Yastrzemski in '67, Russell in '68, Tom Seaver in '69, and Bobby Orr in '70. But why was he not as deserving as Ken Venturi in '64 or Lee Trevino in '71? Those men weren't athletes, they were golfers. This was clearly a lifetime achievement award for the Wizard of Westwood.

* 1978: Jack Nicklaus. If you accept that golfers are athletes and therefore "sportsmen," this still doesn't make any sense. Yes, he won the British Open that year. But it was hardly his best year. So why then? Why him, instead of, say, Ron Guidry? Or Roger Staubach? Or Elvin Hayes? Or Guy Lafleur? Or Bear Bryant? Or Jack Givens? Or Mario Kempes? They could've given it to Steve Cauthen, the jockey who won the Triple Crown -- except they gave it to him the year before, when he gave them less reason to do so.

* 1985: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This one was justified because, although he was 38, Kareem carried the Los Angeles Lakers on his back to win the NBA title.

* 1986: Joe Paterno. My personal feelings about him aside, he had put Penn State into a de facto National Championship game. But he had done things like that before, a few times.

* 1992: Arthur Ashe. He was dying of AIDS, and closing a life devoted to activism of many kinds. It would have been better if they'd honored him in 1968 (when he became the first black man to win the U.S. Open, although Russell was a good choice) or in 1975 (when he became the first black man to win Wimbledon, a better choice than the now-disgraced Pete Rose).

* 1993: Don Shula. He broke the NFL career record for coaching wins, but it was hardly his best year. It should have been 1973, when he won back-to-back titles, including the capping of an undefeated season. But SI picked Jackie Stewart, an auto racer. Jackie was a great personality, and perhaps the best at what he did (certainly, at the time), but auto racing is not a sport. It requires intelligence, toughness, and endurance, but no real athleticism. Also, the car is the biggest key: You put me in Stewart's car and Stewart in my 1979 Mercury Zephyr, and I'll beat him.

* 1997: Dean Smith. Yes, that was the year he broke the record for most NCAA coaching victories. (It has since been broken again.) And he did bring North Carolina to one more Final Four in his last season. But, as with some of these others, he had better years, including Shula's year of 1993, when he won the National Championship.

* 2011: Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. Each is now the all-time leader in NCAA coaching victories for basketball played by their respective genders. And each had a great year. But, again, both had better years.

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So, are there any figures who deserved Sportsman of the Year more than Peyton Manning? An answer of "Yes" would do nothing to diminish Peyton's achievements. Even if he has achieved more in other years.

Title winners in the various sports?

* NFL: Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, John Harbaugh... Great, but not really much buzz.

* NHL: Chicago Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews... No, not much excitement unless you live in Chicagoland.

* NBA: Miami Heat. LeBron James won SOTY last year.

* MLB: Boston Red Sox. Had SI named David Ortiz, knowing full well he was a cheater and a liar about it, I would have told every Yankee Fan to cancel their subscriptions and never buy the magazine again.

* UEFA: Bayern Munich. Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery... Not exactly paragons of virtue.

* Olympics: There wasn't any. And in a non-Olympic year, an Olympic-sport achievement would have to be mind-boggling to qualify its achiever for SOTY.

* Boxing: The most notable boxer of the year was Floyd Mayweather, whose greatest claim to fame is that he's a coward, too chicken to risk his undefeated record against Manny Pacquiao, even though it's now proven that Pacquiao is not invincible. Mayweather says he won't fight Pacquiao because he won't do business with Bob Arum. What a chump: If I had people calling me a coward to not fight someone, I'd call the fighter up, and do a "Creed-Balboa III": No promoters, no money, no cameras, no fans, let's just do this. Mayweather won't, because he's a coward. And no sportsman.

* Tennis: Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams each won both the U.S. & French Opens, while Andy Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936. Can't really say either is ahead of Peyton.

You know what? I can't say there's a single athlete who deserves it more than Peyton does.

So, I'm going to agree with Sports Illustrated: Peyton Manning is the Sportsman of the Year.

But his brother Eli still out-titles him, 2-1.

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