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Murray story archive
Thursday, September 6, 2001
Politicking for glory
By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 1, 1971.
The subject for today is the Heisman Trophy and other great political contest in American history.
You get the Heisman Trophy the way you get the Democratic nomination. You don't need touchdowns so much as delegates.
The pros put the thing in its proper ludicrous perspective when they select the Heisman player at the draft meeting just before they put the lights out, and then assign him to suicide units breaking up kickoff wedges. The shallowness of the award may be seen in the fact no interior lineman has ever won it.
The bankruptcy of the award may be seen in the fact Jim Brown never won it. Nor did Gayle Sayers. Billy Cannon, Joe Bellino, and Terry Baker, on the other hand, did.
It should be called the "Smoke-Filled Room" Award. The Tammany Hall Award.
The unfortunate thing is, the trophy comes full of money. A winner can command more at the pro bargaining table regardless of his on-field inadequacies. On the off chance he may be able to field punts or hold point-after-touchdown tries, the pros up the ante for the publicity value they can get our of this presence in camp. They take it out of the cut they would otherwise have to give the linebacker from Grambling who will be making tackles for them for 15 years.
The voting -- among a cross section of sportswriters -- is strictly along regional lines. In the past years, when I had to vote (I guess I forfeited it by not voting), I have been importuned by sportswriter friends in other parts of the country to vote for a young man whose name I could not spell, and whose position I did not know -- except to be sure he was in a backfield some place. Even after I lost the vote, I was called by pals east of the Mississippi to research a column on a contender of their choice who was being shut out because his conference had two candidates canceling each other out to the benefit of a headline player in another part of the country where the writers had formed a unified front.
The whole thing smacks of a Woodrow Wilson - Champ Clark nominating convention. I expect it to get worse. Any year now, I foresee a situation where, let's say, the South comes up with two bona fide candidates. An informal caucus will be held in a Birmingham press box, sort of like a New Hampshire primary. The weight of the Southeast will be sampled and then thrust -- unanimously -- behind one candidate. The resident Mark Hanna or Jim Farley will be dispatched to the loser's campus to advise the publicist to withdraw his brochures or at least his Monday morning broadsides. The judgment of the machine will outweigh the sentiment of the individual. It will all be handled the way Mayor Daley would handle it.
Actually the Heisman Trophy used to have overtones of Dink Stover, Frank Merriwell and the Rover Boys implicit in it. The guy who won it was not necessarily the leading ground-gainer or total-offense leader, he was the guy who helped the most little old ladies across the street, fought communism, took up the collection in chapel, or had not been named recently in paternity suits. It was nice that he led the conference in passing, but not necessary. He could even be known for blocking. A University of Chicago man won the first Heisman, and wasn't even the best player in Chicago. Yale won two of the first three, and hasn't won since. In fact, the Ivy league has won only one other since.
What's next? Well, billboards I suppose. TV spots. Trading off votes from one year to the next. Logrolling, ballot stuffing, gerrymandering.
Maybe we can just get all the candidates to show up in Atlantic City in their bathing suits. Or, we could adopt the Electoral College system which would make it possible not only for the worst player to win but the guy with the least votes. That's, after all, the democratic way. Personally, I would just as soon give it to the guy who led the nation in fumbles.This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.
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