The Century in Sports

The Eighth Annual Village Voice Sportswriters' Poll

Why Americans took to pro football so enthusiastically at the end of the '50s cannot be explained simply by the new medium. To become a truly national sport, it had to overcome decades of middle-class indifference and even scorn. The great general-interest magazines found in nearly every middle-class household—The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Life, and Look—offer clues. In the '40s and early '50s, as the pros received increasing attention in these magazines, their image was haunted by old suspicions. Next to the boyish good looks of college football heroes, the unglamorous bulk of pros—like the Detroit Lions' 335-pound Les Bingaman—made NFL football seem closer to professional wrestling. Articles with titles like "Savagery on Sunday" and accusations of dirty play reinforced this image.

But by the end of the decade, pro football, now termed "sanctioned savagery," was celebrated in the same magazines. Time ran its first cover story on professional football in 1959, featuring the Giants' middle linebacker, Sam Huff, as the quintessential player of "A Man's Game." After two decades of enticing fans with wide-open passing attacks, the NFL was now celebrated for rugged defense. Even quarterbacks were suddenly loved for their anti-glamour.

Why this transformation at this historical moment? The ascendance of professional football is often linked to the violent, turbulent events of the '60s, with football seeming the perfect expression of our darker selves. Locating pro football's rise a decade earlier suggests something different. In "The Wham in Pro Football," written for Esquire in 1959, Thomas B. Morgan tied the sport's growing popularity to a "decline of exuberance in daily life." The game appealed to an audience that "lives its daily life in a tightly-civilized, humdrum community," Morgan argued. Fans' pleasure in pro football's "sanctioned savagery" gave them "an escape from or a substitute for the boredom of work, the dullness of reality."

The terms should seem familiar. Morgan's read echoed the accounts of the "other-directed" and "organizational men" in the writings of the decade's prominent sociologists, responding to the forces of suburbanization, the corporate "rat race," a powerful domestic ideology, and Cold War consensus. College football had first become a spectator sport in the 1890s, another time when anxiety about the deadening of daily life ran high.

As our No. 1 spectator sport, professional football has come to seem the quintessential game of society's winners, but its chief appeal is likely its compensation for the sense of diminishment and irreversible loss that accompanied the long march to prosperity over the 20th century. —Michael Oriard


Babe Didrikson. She was accomplished in just about every sport—track, basketball, golf, tennis, swimming, boxing, baseball, volleyball, even bowling. Asked if there was anything she didn't play, Didrikson responded, "Yeah, dolls." Didrikson was a trailblazer, proving women could be star athletes. She set two world records in track at the '32 Olympics, and then went on to be one of the most successful golfers on record, once winning 13 consecutive tournaments. Of course, golf was the only sport Didrikson could play . . . and make a living at. She was forever fighting to gain more opportunities for women athletes and forever battling stereotypes designed to keep her gender in its place, and she was unapologetic about those struggles. For that she suffered slander and rumors, but she kept playing, and carving a path for those who came after her.

Runners-up: Martina Navratilova. The two-time Voice female sports figure of the year is at the top once again. The most dominant tennis player of all time—she won 56 Grand Slam championships, including a record nine Wimbledon singles titles—Navratilova claims a lofty place in the voting for her outspokenness on gay issues. She was the first athlete to come out while she was a superstar (in 1981). She paid the price—it is estimated that she lost millions in endorsements—but she opened up a dialogue on gender, sexuality, and sports that continues to this day. » Billie Jean King. Twenty Wimbledon titles. Crusader for gender equity in sports. Founder of Women's Sports Foundation and WomenSports magazine. Creator of World Team Tennis. A true pioneer for women athletes as sports was exploding in the '70s. But, of course, she's best known for her victory in the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match with Bobby Riggs. The symbolism of that win was extraordinary, no doubt. But King did so much more for her gender, and her sport, besides.


Muhammad Ali. The former Cassius Clay became a worldwide phenomenon as Ali. He was, simply, "The Greatest," and not just because he was a three-time heavyweight champ. He was a showman with a message. A strong black man when much of the country wanted African Americans to stay in their place. An antiwar activist who paid the price—Ali was stripped of his title when he refused military induction during the Vietnam War. He suffered for his beliefs earlier as well, when he joined the Nation of Islam a day after taking the title from Sonny Liston in 1964. His popularity plummeted and promoters shied away from him. Ali was a hated man in the '60s, but he became celebrated in the '70s as he regained his title and earned respect for sticking to his principles. Still a hero wherever he goes, Ali is the man of the century.

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