A Tale of Two Eras
As one millennium folds into another there has never been, I maintain, a better time to be a sports fan. Why? Because athletes are better than ever. It may have more to do with Cybex and creatine than evolution, but when Mark McGwire, Vince Carter, or Randy Moss takes center stage, put down that remote, because you might miss something you’ve never seen before and may never see again. Thanks to the miracles of modern science, when one of these human highlight films blows out a knee, or announces that he has cancer, we can wonder when he’ll come back, not if. And for the first time in recent memory, we can enjoy it all without the imminent threat of a strike or a lockout hanging over our heads. (Enjoy that while it lasts.)
And we’ve got more ways than ever to indulge our sports jones. Flip to the pregame while you’re crunching Allan Houston’s quarter-by-quarter numbers on Stats Inc. Online. Let Marv do the play-by-play (Yesss!) complete with telestrators, reverse replays, and of course, the jam cam. Blow off the halftime report and watch Willie Mays take on Hank Aaron in Home Run Derby on ESPN Classic. Watch Latrell answer Al Trautwig’s smirking questions while getting dressed on the postgame show. Vent your spleen on WFAN with Joe Benigno on the overnight. And read about it all in tomorrow’s paper. In a lot of important ways, sitting in your fin-de-siècle living room is much better than being there.
But for all of this era’s guilty pleasures, there’s also never been a worse time to be a sports fan, either. Day after day, the sports section morphs into cringe-a-thon. When an owner claims that a player’s contract is forcing him to raise ticket prices, or he’ll have to move the team unless the taxpayers fork over $500 million for a new stadium, we believe him. When the bulldozers line up outside a true American landmark like Boston Garden, Fenway Park, or God forbid Yankee Stadium, we watch the dust and then buy a piece of the memory on QVC. And when a wide receiver stands to have his career ended by lethal injection, we hardly blink an eye.
But the way I see it, we’ve got a chance at a fresh start. The millennial odometer has rolled over, and it’s zero-zero. So my resolution is going to be twofold. First, I’m going to try to watch sports like I did when I was 12, transfixed, transported, awed, even frightened at what happens on the field (even if that means cheering in the press box). But when the game is over, I’ll put my cynicism aside in a different way, and do more than just shake my head knowingly when the guys who play these games or run these leagues are duplicitous, short-sighted, cruel, or just plain stupid. And I invite you to do the same. —Allen St. John
When Sports Meets Politics
In an echo of past imperial glory, a supremely confident young warrior named Cassius Marcellus Clay won fame in the brutal arenas of Rome, just as the American Century was beginning to show the cracks and strains of empire. The Olympic year of 1960 would soon be outstripped by “The Sixties,” and no one embodied them more than the newly christened Muhammad Ali: Whether converting to what the ruling class viewed as a bewildering and dangerous religion, partying with Hunter Thompson or Norman Mailer, boosting Howard Cosell’s career, reading poetry in the Village, or, most ominously, refusing to fight the Viet Cong, Ali took hold of America’s hydra-headed monster of race, religion, and class and beat it like a gong.
The frustrated youngster, who threw his gold medal into the Ohio River when he found that even an Olympian was judged solely on melanin content, grew into the man who faced down the entire military-industrial complex as thoroughly as he had that equally fearsome bully Sonny Liston, achieving lasting victory over both. He lost skills and money in the three-plus years he was barred from boxing, but his principled stand won him respect all over the world.
Sport can be suffused with tribal hatreds that leave behind trampled soccer fans or burning, overturned cars, and politics often sully games that only the supremely naive feel should be simple contests of strength, speed, agility, and graceful sportsmanship. Yet Ali, using only that most basic tool, the human hand, whether clenched in a fist or held outstretched in a gesture of trust, reconciliation, and peace, showed that it can also be luminous and poignant.
It was, in fact, Ali’s trembling, stricken hand that lofted the Olympic torch in ’96, and until the bomb went off, we all forgot for a while that politics hang over sports like so many swastika banners festooning 1936 Berlin. But politics ultimately look small and unimportant next to the triumphant, beatific howls of Picabo Street and Michael Johnson, or the desolate rictus of a fallen Mary Decker, or, especially, the Führer’s constipated anger as thousands of good Germans eschewed xenophobia and cheered Jesse Owens’s four gold medals. —Bob Baker
In the Sky with Diamonds
Screw Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire—if there’s a sports figure of the decade for the ’90s, it can only be one person: Judge Roy Hofheinz.
Sure, the former Houston Astros owner (and real estate baron, media magnate, and LBJ campaign director) died in 1982, when nobody had even heard of Jerry Seinfeld. But before departing the mortal plane, he came up with an idea that would transform sports forever: In 1965, he walled off the upper tier of the brand-new Astrodome, installed mini-apartments with closed-circuit TVs, and dubbed them Sky Boxes.
No one had ever thought of selling corporate condos at the ballpark before Hofheinz—and soon enough, no one would be able to imagine a sporting event without them. And so the Astrodome begat SkyDome, with its in-stadium hotel and health club; and SkyDome begat Camden Yards, the first sports facility to combine steel-and-brick design with shopping-mall merchandising; and Camden Yards begat the swarm of faux-traditional sportsplexes that are now cluttering the nation’s abandoned downtowns.
In the last decade, nearly every burg in the land has been shaken down for sports payola, and mostly for one reason: the allure of luxury suites, which can rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece in the space that would otherwise have pulled in just a handful of ordinary, $20-a-pop patrons.
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that with $2 billion worth of new ballparks and arenas opening every year, sports marketers are now worrying about a luxury-box glut; even the dotcom economy, it seems, can’t generate enough fannies to fill all those plush seats. So pass those $5 nachos, and let’s root, root, root for a market crash. —Neil deMause
Gender and Jockdom
“With the single exception of the improvement of the legal status of women, their entrance into the realm of sports is the most cheering thing that has happened to them in the century just past.” That’s just what I wanted to say, but researcher Anne O’Hagan said it first—in 1901, just one year after women competed in the Olympics for the first time. A hundred years ago, Bloomers Girls baseball teams were competing against minor league men’s teams all over the country, women had secured their own singles category at Wimbledon, basketball had made its way into some women’s colleges, and in a few noted instances, women were even boxing. Nonetheless, well into the 1920s, physical education instructors were still insisting that girls be barred from their classes lest they forsake their femininity.
That, of course, was the point, first-wave feminists knew. They argued for increasing women’s access to athletics precisely because they recognized that physical strength, the camaraderie of team play, competition, and not least, the joy of unfettered movement, were intimately linked to possibilities for women’s liberty. “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world,” said Susan B. Anthony.
Half a century later, in women’s postwar refusal to be bought out of the public sphere with new household gizmos and sparkling suburban kitchens, they renewed their demands for a place on the playground. That generation, too, understood that if sport built men’s characters and prepared them for leadership, then it could do—must do—the same for women. More than that, they grasped most viscerally that liberation would be complete only when women felt strength in and sovereignty over their own bodies. The feminist movement produced what can easily be declared the most revolutionary agent for change in American sports of the 20th century: Title IX.
The 1972 legislation that banned discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded college programs instantly changed the world. In 1970, 294,000 girls participated in interscholastic high school sports; by 1973 the number had leapt to 1.3 million. No one doubts that without Title IX, there would have been no Olympic softball team, no WNBA, and no Brandi Chastain whipping off her shirt in World Cup triumph.
The downside—apart from the fact that to this day, hardly any university complies fully with Title IX—is that as women got more opportunities and recognition as athletes, men got more control: They assumed coaching and administrative positions for female teams that were once held by women. Meanwhile, promoters—forgetting what got us here—do their darndest to distance women’s sports from feminism and actually market the athletes’ femininity more than their skill. Unwittingly, they are abetting current well-funded efforts—by the folks who brought us the attack on affirmative action—to reverse Title IX. If they succeed, they’ll set women’s sports—and women in general—back at least 100 years. —Alisa Solomon
The Fall of Man = The Rise of Football
Surely, one candidate for the top sports story of the century just-ended is the ascendance of pro football. The explanation routinely offered points to television and the foresight of Pete Rozelle. The overtime championship game between the Colts and Giants in 1958 is usually cited as the decisive event. But professional football would not become the No. 1 American spectator sport for more than another decade. Still, the ’50s marked the crucial turning point.
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
FEMALE SPORTS FIGURE OF THE CENTURY
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.
MALE SPORTS FIGURE OF THE CENTURY
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.
Runners-up: Jackie Robinson. He earned his place in history by breaking baseball’s color barrier. But it’s interesting to note that Robinson’s feat came in his fourth-best sport. The ’49 NL MVP had lettered in basketball, football, and track at UCLA, earning a national championship in the long jump. As for his role as a social pioneer, that was nothing new to him either. In the army, Robinson once refused to sit in the back of the bus, earning him a court-martial (he was later cleared). » Pelé. The greatest soccer player ever was somehow absent from most of the century-ending lists of greatest athletes. Voice voters addressed this omission, pointing to his three World Cup championships with Brazil, and his 12 goals in 14 Cup games. Pelé was beloved all over the globe—when his club team went to Nigeria in 1969, the civil war there stopped for the duration of his visit. In 1975, Pelé came out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos, creating an explosion of soccer popularity in the U.S. He has been an ambassador for his sport ever since.
WORST SPORTS FIGURE OF THE CENTURY
Don King. The unrighteous reign of this street hustler- turned-boxing fixer started in 1974 (with his promotion of the “Rumble in the Jungle”). A long, slimy trail of accusations have followed him ever since (none of which seem to stick, except, of course, for that manslaughter rap that got him 4 years).
Runners-up: Walter O’Malley. The destroyer of Brooklyn’s soul was not the first to pull up a Major League team and move elsewhere. But he took a beloved team away from a borough that saw the Dodgers as the core of its identity. Brooklyn still feels the pain from that 1957 disaster—just ask Pete Hamill. If the evil O’Malley had any heart whatsoever, there might be a grand old ballpark at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic instead of a mall. » Adolf Hitler. The Führer’s attempt to turn the ’36 Games into a propaganda display for the master race, fortunately, fell on its face. We have Jesse Owens to thank for that. But by festooning as many swastikas on the stadium as possible, Hitler still managed to turn the Olympics into a Nazi pageant and forever doomed the games to being as much a show of jingoism as a sporting competition.
PREVIOUS WINNERS OF THE VILLAGE VOICE SPORTSWRITERS’ POLL
MALE SPORTS FIGURE OF THE YEAR
1998: Sammy Sosa
1997: Michael Jordan
1994: Mark Messier
1993: Michael Jordan
1992: Magic Johnson
1991: Magic Johnson
1990: Roger Milla
FEMALE SPORTS FIGURE OF THE YEAR
1998: Chamique Holdsclaw
1997: Martina Hingis
1994: Martina Navratilova
1993: Sheryl Swoopes
1992: Manon Rhéaume
1991: Martina Navratilova
1990: Lisa Olson
TEAM OF THE YEAR
1998: New York Yankees
1997: Chicago Bulls
1994: New York Rangers
1993: Chicago Bulls
1992: USA Olympic Basketball “Dream Team”
1991: USA Women’s Soccer
1990: San Francisco 49ers
WORST SPORTS FIGURE OF THE YEAR
1998: David Stern and the NBA owners
1997: Mike Tyson
1994: Bud Selig/Richard Ravitch and the Major League Baseball owners
1993: Vince Coleman
1992: Marge Schott
SPORTS JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR
1998: Andrew Zimbalist (SportsBusiness Journal, New York Times, Wall Street Journal)
1994: Darcy Frey (The Last Shot)/Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx (Hoop Dreams)
1993: USA Today Sports Section
1992: Phil Mushnick (New York Post)
1991: Robert Lipsyte (New York Times)