Voters missed mark in choosing list of sports people with impact
A recent nationwide poll to select people who have made the greatest impact on sports in the past 40 years was a sure thing to provoke plenty of arguments, so I might as well add my comments to the list. The poll, taken by SPORT magazine in commemoration of its 40th year of publication, involved more than 200 longtime observers of sport, including this correspondent. Each of us was asked to vote for a dozen or so candidates. The field was open to athletes, coaches, executives, writers, broadcasters, attorneys, physicians - ``anybody, even accidental heroes and villains,'' and the magazine emphasized that in addition to famous names it hoped to honor some individuals ``who might not have already been widely recognized.'' The scope was to be worldwide, and the definition of ``impact'' was ``a contribution that changed a sport or sports generally.''
Of course the balloting didn't really follow these guidelines, as can be seen from the accompanying Top 40 list. Most of the first dozen or so choices make sense to some degree, especially near the top, though even in this group there are some glaring omissions. And once you get into the latter part of the list, a lot of the selections start getting very questionable.
The biggest inequity is the lack of recognition for women (only 3 on the entire list, and none higher than No. 10). The order in which the names appear is also hard to fathom if we're talking about ``impact,'' and not just how good somebody was. But unfortunately it seems that a high percentage of the voters approached this as just another ``best athletes'' poll or turned it into a popularity contest.
The voters made Jackie Robinson No. 1, and I'm certainly not going to argue with that. I had Jackie tied for runner-up honors with Branch Rickey, figuring that these two deserved equal billing for fighting the same courageous fight against racial prejudice and discrimination.
But Billie Jean King No. 10? They have to be kidding. If we're talking about impact, here is the person who was the driving force behind the biggest change of all in sports during the period in question - the tremendous strides made by women. I put Billie Jean at the top of my list, and cannot see how she could possibly be ranked any lower than second or third.
And what about the other major contributors to this trend?
Take a look at the interest in women's long distance running today compared to that 40 years ago, and then try to figure out how the voters could have ignored somebody like Grete Waitz. Check out the incredible growth in the popularity of gymnastics, which all began with Olga Korbut captivating a worldwide TV audience at the 1972 Olympics and Nadia Comaneci repeating the performance in 1976.
These are athletes who had real impact on their sport, and on sports in general. So did Babe Didrickson Zaharias, perhaps the most versatile female athlete of all time. But none of them even made 40th place.
Indeed, the only three women on the entire list are all tennis players - King, Chris Evert (18), and Martina Navratilova (27). All great players, to be sure, but that's not supposed to be the criterion in this election. And can anyone argue with any logic that either Evert or Navratilova changed their sport the way the other women named above did?
In addition to slighting women, the voters obviously gave a very low priority to participatory sports in general. The running boom, both male and female, was certainly one of the major developments in sports over the last couple of decades, but you'd never know it from this list. Not only is Waitz omitted, but so are former Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter and four-time Boston Marathon king Bill Rodgers, both of whose exploits and examples helped build their sport into the mass participation event it has become.
Indeed, you have to go all the way down to No. 38 on the list to find any track-and-field athlete, and then it is Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila, whose Olympic marathon victories in 1960 and '64 were impressive, but who certainly didn't have the impact these other runners did. The thing most people remember about Bikila is that he ran barefoot - which made onlookers wince but didn't exactly start any trends.
The voters also had a lot of names in the middle of their list that seemed to be there primarily for athletic accomplishment rather than ``impact'' - names like Evert, Navratilova, Jack Nicklaus, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle, Wayne Gretzky, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Aaron, Pete Rose, etc.
These all are or were superstars, but in terms of changing their sport not one of them was remotely close, for example, to Curt Flood, whose challenge to baseball's reserve clause launched the modern free-agent era. I made Flood and his historic defiance No. 4 on my list, but he just squeaked in as No. 32 with the voters.
It's all subjective, though, and anyway I sometimes think the main purpose of these polls is to stir up comment and controversy. If so, this one certainly achieved its aim!
SPORT magazine's ranking of 40 impact people 1. Jackie Robinson
He opened the door for black players in baseball. 2. Muhammad Ali
His combination of skill and charisma revitalized boxing. 3. Pete Rozelle
He was the architect of pro football's tremendous growth. 4. Arnold Palmer
He lifted golf to the top echelon of TV sports attractions. 5. Vince Lombardi
His coaching success made him a football legend. 6. Branch Rickey
He forced the breaking of baseball's color line. 7. Red Auerbach
He built the Boston Celtics into sport's greatest dynasty. 8. Marvin Miller
The union leader who changed baseball's financial structure. 9. Bill Russell
His great defense and team play revolutionized basketball. 10. Billie Jean King
The driving force behind the strides made by women in sports. 11. Wilt Chamberlain
The prototype of basketball's dominant big man. 12. John Wooden
His college basketball coaching success may never be equaled. 13. Jack Nicklaus
Golf's greatest player eventually became a public favorite too. 14. Roone Arledge
He presided over the marriage of television and sports. 15. Ted Williams
Baseball's greatest hitter from the pre-war era to the '60s. 16. Howard Cosell
No one can deny his effect on the way sports events are covered. 17. Willie Mays
His sheer joy in playing the game helped revitalize baseball. 18. Chris Evert
Her early fame and steady success helped build women's tennis. 19. Joe Namath
His skill and cockiness built a team, a league, and a legend. 20. Bobby Orr
His spectacular play redefined the role of a hockey defenseman. 21. Jim Brown
Still the standard against whom all running backs are measured. 22. Mickey Mantle
Explosive all-around skill made him a baseball great. 23. Wayne Gretzky
His scoring exploits triggered the emphasis on hockey offense. 24. Casey Stengel
Baseball's most successful manager did more than push buttons. 25. Sugar Ray Robinson
Perhaps the best fighter of all time - and he had style too. 26. Paul Brown
He built pro football's first postwar powerhouse. 27. Martina Navratilova
She dominates women's tennis with an unprecedented power game. 28. Henry Aaron
Breaking Babe Ruth's home run record made him an all-time hero. 29. Willie Shoemaker
The world's winningest jockey and one of the most durable ever. 30. Al Davis
He wins on the field and beats football's establishment off it. 31. Avery Brundage
He championed amateur ideals as head of the Olympic movement. 32. Curt Flood
He challenged baseball's reserve system, launching free-agentry. 33. Bob Cousy
His spectacular play started basketball toward the big time. 34. Bear Bryant
He built one of college football's best programs at Alabama. 35. Pel'e
He captivated the world, and helped boost soccer in the US. 36. Pete Rose
He showed how far an athlete can go on hustle and determination. 37. Jim Norris
The entrepreneur who built up both boxing and hockey. 38. Abebe Bikila
His Olympic marathon wins helped put Africa on the sports map. 39. Jim Bouton
His ``Ball Four'' started a trend in controversial sports books. 40. Bill France Sr.
He was the father of stock car racing.