Monday, June 11, 2007

NFL invisible for 25 years, USAT says

USA Today is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a series of Top 25 lists. As in, the 25 most groundbreaking inventions of the past quarter-century, the 25 most influential people, that sort of thing. (If this sounds familiar, it's because ESPN did exactly the same thing for its 25th anniversary a couple years back.) Today's installment in the USA Today series is the "25 Greatest Sports Stories." Lists like these are intended as conversation starters, not definitive histories. They're inherently subjective, so it's pointless to quibble with this item or that item. That said, however, you can't help but notice that there's something missing from today's list.


The only football story on the entire list is at No. 11: Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie's Heisman-winning Hail Mary pass against Miami in 1984. And that's it. One football story, and it's 23 years old, it's not even from the NFL, and I don't know if it even qualifies as a "story." (It was a great moment, to be sure, but it was hardly a story. It was one play.) The only other football player on the list is O.J. Simpson, whose trial is at No. 22. But the O.J. trial wasn't a football story. It wasn't even a sports story. It was a legal story, a celebrity story, a story about race and class, but most assuredly not a football story.

So with one story on the USA Today list, football -- America's game, by far the most popular sport in the Unites States today -- is tied with hockey, cycling, women's figure skating and women's soccer. Meanwhile, there are four basketball stories, two golf stories and two stories about athletes with HIV.

Oh yeah, there are also nine stories about baseball. Unfortunately, not one of those nine is the story of how baseball, once the national pastime, has fallen far behind football (and now NASCAR) in popularity thanks to a breathtaking run of greed, arrogance, stupidity, disingenuousness and moral laziness. The No. 1 story on the list is the Boston Red Sox's World Series championship in 2004, the TV ratings for which were exactly one-half of what they were 25 years earlier.

No. 2 on the list is Cal Ripken setting baseball's record for consecutive games, which I can get behind. No. 5 is "steroids in baseball," which I can't get behind, especially because the very next item on the list is the "1998 home run chase." I thought that by this point we all understood that without steroids, there would have been no 1998 home run chase. These are the same story. Moving on, No. 10 is another baseball corruption highlight: "Pete Rose banned," which was definitely a big deal. No. 13 is Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series. Well, now. Sure, he was hurt, but Gibson's homer came in Game 1 of a five-game series. Joe Carter hit a World Series-winning walk-off home run in 1993. But then again, Carter isn't every sportswriter's secret crush.

No. 15 is Bill Buckner's error in the 1986 World Series. Eh. Talk about a story that the media loves all out of proportion to its impact. (The game was already tied, the error didn't lose the Red Sox the World Series, and even if Buckner had played the ball cleanly, Bob Stanley still wouldn't have made it to the bag for the forceout.) No. 19 is the 1989 World Series being postponed by an earthquake, which isn't much of a sports story, either, but is more so than O.J. And No. 23 is the strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. For my money, that should be the No. 1 story, because that's the event that killed whatever emotional connection America had left to baseball. Since the strike, the story of Major League Baseball has been one gimmick after another: interleague play, faux-retro ballparks, home run chases engineered with juiced balls, "alternate jerseys" and, my favorite, the decision to make home-field advantage in the World Series dependent on the outcome of an exhibition game in which the lineups are decided by whichever team's fans can most effectively stuff Internet ballot boxes.

What football stories at least deserve consideration? Off the top of my head:

The rise of the NFL colossus. The NFL is now a year-round phenomenon. First the draft became a national TV event, then the scouting combine, then team minicamps. Fantasy football has turned everyone into an armchair G.M. (In fact, the rise of fantasy sports of all kinds should probably be in the top 10.) If "the pervasiveness of ESPN" can rate No. 24 on the USA Today list, then the NFL's sheer hegemony should be in the top 20.

The 1985 Chicago Bears. Though they may not have been the best of all time (they weren't), the '85 Bears became a metaphor for athletic dominance that transcended football. Plus, they produced the seminal sports music video, paving the way for the Berenguer Boogie just two years later.

Joe Theismann's leg. The most famous sports injury of all time. Like the footage of Ronald Reagan getting shot over and over on national TV, this sickening replay of Lawrence Taylor ending Theismann's career became a point of reference for the next two decades. Too bad LT didn't hit him in the vocal cords.

Adam Vinatieri's leg. Not once but twice in three years, Vinatieri won the Super Bowl with a field goal on the final play of the game. If Michael Jordan's NBA Finals-winning shot vs. Utah in 1998 (in Game 6, not 7) qualifies, then Vinatieri's heroics deserve a place on the list.

I worked at USA Today for years, and I still have a lot of good friends there. This criticism (loving, of course!) is directed at USAT specifically, but it applies to the sports media generally.

Sports media types love baseball far more than does the public. My local newspaper, for example, has a tiny sports section, but every day it gives over a full page to baseball agate that's freely available everywhere else. Sports media types will tell you that of course baseball provided more than one-third of the biggest sports stories of the past 25 years. Everyone they know just loves baseball!

Sports media types also inbue certain moments with "meaning" far out of proportion to their actual impact. It was nice to see Team USA win the 1999 Women's World Cup (No. 14), but the lasting impact was close to zero. The league that grew out of the World Cup collapsed within three years amid near-total apathy. Similarly, the news that Arthur Ashe was dying of AIDS (No. 20) was tragic, but it came less than a year after Magic Johnson had already put a famous face on HIV. Perhaps Ashe is on the list because he was hounded by a certain newspaper into revealing his diagnosis, which he had preferred to keep private.

Breaking down the "25 Greatest Sports Stories," we find the trouble:

1. Sox win Series 5. Baseball steroids
2. Ripken breaks record 6. '98 home run chase
3. Tiger Woods wins first Masters 9. Magic has HIV
4. Villanova wins NCAAs 10. Pete Rose banned
7. N.C. State wins NCAAs 12. Dale Earnhardt dies
8. Jack Nicklaus Wins '86 Masters 17. Tonya Harding v. Nancy Kerrigan
11. Flutie Hail Mary 19. Series earthquake
13. Gibson home run 20. Ashe has AIDS
14. 1999 World Cup 22. Simpson trial
15. Buckner error 23. '94 Series canceled
16. Duke buzzer beater in '92 NCAAs24. ESPN is really popular
18. Jordan's last shot
21. Lance Armstrong
25. Wayne Gretzky sets NHL scoring record

It's simple: Not enough "sports," too many "stories."

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