I was all set to write today about the most important 10 or 12 athletes in sports history since a lot of people reading yesterday’s blog raised the question. I’m going to save that for another day---although I’ll give you my list at the end of this blog and then discuss it in detail later. I will also say that the poster who objected yesterday to the notion of me describing Tiger Woods as, “one of the most important athletes in sports history,” on the grounds that sports isn’t important enough to be part of history, needs to jump off his high horse and do a little more research.
Certainly the actual playing of games has little to do with history. But the simple fact is sports touches millions of lives in more ways than can be counted. The poster mentioned Jesse Owens. How about the hockey team in 1980 at Lake Placid? Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King? Muhammad Ali? I could go on but that’s also for another day. Sports is an important part of life around the world—often for good and sometimes for bad—and if you don’t get that you aren’t nearly as smart as you think you are.
Anyway, just before I sat down to write about the most important athletes—notice I didn’t say BEST athletes because that’s a different story—I came upon a story in The Wall Street Journal. There are times when The Journal does very good stories on sports because it takes a different tack than the rest of us, often digging up facts that others (myself included) wouldn’t think to seek out. Where The Journal gets into trouble is when it allows guys who don’t know anything about sports to express their opinions on sports—which are often based on talking to those in power since they can usually get them on the phone by saying, “Wall Street Journal.”
So today, a guy named Darren Everson writes a story in which he insists that expanding the NCAA basketball tournament to 96 teams should be a “no-brainer.” He’s right. Anyone with a brain who doesn’t have a vested interest in expansion—as in the NCAA, ESPN and most major conference coaches—knows it’s a ridiculous idea. Everson was taken in by Greg Shaheen from the NCAA carefully explaining that the NCAA is merely doing “due diligence,” by raising the possibility; by coaches who want to protect their jobs claiming that too many good teams get left out of the 65 team field and by commissioners looking for more bids for their conferences.
What a bunch of malarkey.
What makes the NCAA basketball tournament unique is that you actually DO have to be good to make the field. It isn’t like the bowls where more than 50 percent of Division 1-A gets to play in a bunch of bowls who change corporate names the way George Steinbrenner used to change pitching coaches. It isn’t like the NBA or the NHL where more than half the teams make the playoffs. Or even like the NFL where only 12 of 32 make postseason but the divisional system occasionally lets 8-8 team in the door and often allows 9-7 teams into postseason. It is a lot closer to baseball where eight of 30 teams make postseason and it is rare for an un-deserving team to advance.
Everson bought into the notion that expanding to 96 teams would give more mid-majors the chance to make the tournament. Really? If 31 bids are added how many do you think WON’T go to the big six conferences? Five, six? If that? And you can bet those five or six will be No. 22 or No. 23 seeds in a 24 team regional while the 10th place team in the ACC gets a 13th seed. Have you paid any attention to how the committee seeds the field? Almost all the automatic qualifiers from non-power leagues are consigned to the 13-to-16 ghetto. For a while there was a sub-committee whose job it was to take those teams and seed them as if putting together a separate tournament.
Oh sure, every once in a while someone will pop up a few spots after going 27-2 and beating a couple of power teams in early season tournaments—usually the only time a power team will play anyone who is any good outside their conference—and the occasional at-large team will sneak in from the non-power conferences but they REALLY have to work hard to overcome all the talking heads who usually want every single team from the Big East and the ACC to make the field. Frequently teams that finish under .500 in their own conference get in on the basis of quality LOSSES.
With all the bleating by the BCS hypocrites about how much meaning the football regular season has, it is basketball that has the most meaningful regular season. You can play your way into the tournament with a strong finish or you can play your way out with a poor one. Getting a bid actually has meaning, which is why CBS always shows us those shots of teams sitting in their (very comfortable) lounges waiting to get word on whether they’re in or out. Can you imagine the suspense next year if CBS shows us 16-15 Providence waiting to get word on whether it has been chosen over 17-14 Indiana or 15-14 North Carolina State while 23-7 Bradley hopes someone notices that even though it finished fourth in The Missouri Valley it had wins over both Indiana and Providence?
God, I can’t wait.
Let’s not even get into an argument about what a fourth week on the road will do for the ‘student-athletes,’ whose teams come from a lower seed (meaning no first round bye) to make The Final Four because we know that’s a moot point. Everson quotes Baylor’s Scott Drew as saying players would rather play an extra round of games than go to class. Ya think? At least Drew’s honest.
The sad part of all this is it’s going to happen. The NCAA has floated this because it wants the extra money that ESPN or CBS (more likely ESPN) will pony up for an extra week and to give the NCAA the excuse to opt out of the last three years of its CBS contract this summer. The decision has already been made and now the NCAA is using guys like Everson to spread the gospel. He actually wrote that expanding to 96 teams was more important than getting rid of the BCS. Yeah sure, watering down a system that DOES pick a national champion is more important than getting rid of a system that does not pick a national champion, but the champion of the six power conferences.
As someone wrote in a post here last week, “Leave it to the NCAA. It’s motto is, ‘if it ain’t broke fix it.” Truer words were never spoken.
Okay then, here’s my tentative list—because I’m open to suggestion—of the most important athletes in history. This is not in any order, I’m just sort of going by sport: Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron with apologies to Willie Mays; Jim Brown; Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic and Bird; Michael Jordan; Wayne Gretzky; Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps, Jean-Claude Killy, the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid; Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods (remember important is the key word, not great—Palmer was more important than Jack Nicklaus); Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Pele.
Okay, that’s actually 20 and I haven’t included any coaches or managers—that’s a separate list—and I’m sure I’ve left deserving people out. The list probably has too many basketball players but who would you leave out in that group?—and not enough football players. I’ve left out all the great quarterbacks—Graham, Unitas, Starr, Montana, Brady and Manning because I see them as great but not as changing their sport. In fact, if a quarterback belongs on the list it is probably Joe Namath for Super Bowl III even though his body of work isn’t comparable to the others mentioned.
There’s one other person I didn’t mention: Ed Brennan. He was my swimming coach in high school. I probably wouldn’t have gone to college if not for him. That’s what I meant before about sports touching lives—at all levels.
[Update/Note: I had a mind block this morning and left out Jackie Robinson, who might very well be #1 on the list. I can't believe I did this, and will talk more on it tomorrow.]