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Fun To Debate SI's Choice Of Serena, But There's No Place For Ugly, Hateful Words

I'd have chosen American Pharoah, or maybe Steph Curry; Disagree? Fine, but please be civil

I love these arguments.

And I hate them.

The year 2015 was so full of brilliant performers, so lush in athletic storylines, it would be a shame if the Sports Illustrated Sportsman, Sportswoman, suddenly Sportsperson of the Year didn't end with some kind of heated disagreement.

So to set the record straight, here is The Official Half-Baked Jake Sports Performer of the Year: American Pharoah.

To further set the record straight here is The Official Half-Baked Jake Human Sports Performer of the Year: Stephen Curry.

They are my awards. There's no debate. I'm the smartest guy in the room. I can craft the argument, tailor the metrics and spin the narrative any way I want.

And because you are such loyal readers, I will add free of charge The Official Half-Baked Jake Sports Moment of the Year: Cue Steve Raible of the Seattle Seahawks radio network: "Second down and goal from the 1. Shifts Baldwin over to the left side. Lynch in the backfield. Russell looks. Throws inside. Oh my God! It's picked off at the goal line!"

Of course, the (Malcolm) Butler did it. Isn't that the way with all great who-done-its?

And Sports Illustrated has done it.

Got us talking. Got us arguing. Got us comparing a 3-year-old equine to a 34-year-old African-American female. And, by the way, got us reading a terrific piece by S.L. Price on the Sports Illustrated 2015 winner, Serena Williams.

SI's choice of Williams is a good one. Serena deserves it.

The truth is, unless the SI editors decided to name the 2015 Philadelphia 76ers there wasn't much chance of a bad decision.

There was Jordan Spieth, who won two majors and was only a handful of strokes from winning all four. There was Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the World Cup finals. There was Novak Djokovic, who, like Serena, won three majors and, unlike Serena, went to the finals in all four. There were Simone Biles, Usain Bolt, Curry, Thomas Davis, Lionel Messi. There was Ronda Rousey, hailed as invincible until she met the fist and foot of Holly Holm. And there were the Kansas City Royals, the greatest late-inning comeback team in baseball postseason history.

Those were the 12 finalists listed by Sports Illustrated in November when it started an online vote of readers.

You'll notice Tom Brady wasn't on the list. Maybe it was because he already won the award once — Tiger Woods is the only individual to win it twice — or maybe it's because of the yearlong agony of Deflategate. After leading the Patriots to the Super Bowl in February and essentially being co-MVP with Cam Newton this season, it wasn't because of lack of performance.

Using the Time Person of the Year criterion of "the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year," Brady should have won.

This is not Time. This is Sports Illustrated and SI's criterion is "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement."

Frankly, I'm embarrassed so many folks on the Internet and on social media who, if I may paraphrase their argument, wrote, "You idiots. A horse can't win Sportsperson of the Year." Sports Illustrated itself named American Pharoah one of its 12 finalists. American Pharoah got a whopping 47 percent of the vote in the readers' poll. The Royals were second at 27 percent. Nobody else had more than 6 percent. Just as it was conveniently changed from Sportsman to Sportswoman to suddenly Sportsperson, it could be changed to Sports Performer — unless you think American Pharoah isn't an athlete. And then you aren't very bright.

Pharoah became the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. He is both a compelling story that captured millions of hearts and a horse of historical gravitas. Because of breeding and other factors, many had lost faith that a horse would win a Triple Crown again under the current format. Pharoah had other ideas. Yes, he lost at Saratoga in August, but rebounded to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. He swept the great races.

This isn't the first time SI went all human on horse racing. Permit me to dive into the SI archives: "He is Jackie Stewart, the 1973 World Driving Champion, who has brought to his sport a combination of qualities unique in its history: a marvelous physical talent; the intelligence and perspective to be an eminent spokesman for auto racing; and the discipline to retire at the peak of his career, a simple yet infinitely complicated personal act that few celebrated athletes have ever achieved. It is for the sum of these characteristics that Stewart is named Sportsman of 1973, a year that offered two other distinguished candidates."

One was O.J. Simpson. The other was Secretariat. I'm betting SI editors would vote differently today.

The horse racing industry, scrapping for survival on the days other than the big races, obviously would have loved the SI publicity. There is an agenda there. (Since the inception of the award in 1954, jockey Steve Cauthen in 1977 is horse racing's only winner.) It also would be foolish to argue that SI selected Williams solely on winning 53 of 56 matches, opening a spectacular No. 1 ranking points gap, and getting to the brink of Grand Slam history before spectacularly crashing in a Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson upset in the U.S. Open against the unseeded Roberta Vinci.

In an explainer piece, SI managing editor Christian Stone wrote that Williams is also being honored for a career of excellence and "for reasons that hang in the grayer, less comfortable ether, where issues such as race and femininity collide with the games."

 

As far as "sportsmanship," Mr. Ed is the only horse I can say who definitely could show it, but let's not go crazy about this aspect of the SI award. There are guys on the list of winners who could be nasty on the field of play. Tiger? Enough said. Serena has said some bad stuff and made threats on the court over the years. And while she should be applauded for her increased maturity, she didn't exactly cover herself in glory when after her loss to Vinci she snapped at reporters, "I don't want to talk about how disappointing it is for me." And disingenuously said, "I told you guys I don't feel pressure." But that's small potatoes.

It is SI's award. The magazine has crafted the winners its way in the past and obviously is doing it again this year. But guess what? Serena is a strong choice and SI's reasoning in a difficult year in race relations in our country is a good one. No female has been a solo winner since Mary Decker in 1983 and Williams probably should have won it at some point previously. She is, in my estimation, the greatest female athlete in history.

If the award was purely performance, as with the Associated Press, Williams is the 2015 Female Athlete. Curry is the 2015 Male Athlete. Not only did Curry lead the Warriors to the NBA title and to a record 24-0 record to start this season, he has done it night-in, night-out with a devastating array of long-range jump shots that have made the Warriors wildly entertaining and altered the notion that perimeter shooting can't win titles.

If I was one of the SI folks voting, I think I would have given it to the horse, but it's a terrific debate and one I would have loved to have been part of … until seeing some of the fallout in the past 24 hours. For the SI cover, Serena is decked out, all legs, sitting on a golden throne. It was the kind of photo I fully expected. Suddenly, however, it was called exploitive. Some of the lower urchins of our society had comments about Williams. SI felt compelled to tweet the photo was Serena's choice "to express her own ideal of feminist, strength and power."

Good for her. And good grief. By 2015, this is so much ado about nothing.

The LA Times had an online headline "Serena Williams or American Pharaoh? Who Is the Real Sportsperson of the Year?" It got backlash. One photo of Serena and an adjoining one of Pharoah on a tweet led some nitwits to try to turn it into something it wasn't. The Times did change the headline: "Are fans right to be upset that Serena Williams beat American Pharoah for SI Sportsperson of the Year?"

It's sports! Can't we argue about the performances of men and women and horses and football players and tennis players and the merits of their story without it getting ugly?

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