Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Transcending Sports

I recently did a blog post which complained about Brett Favre. Specifically, I was complaining about how the Media treats him as more important than the game itself. But how many athletes have really transcended their sport?

In my opinion, here are the athletes who did:

Babe Ruth: Ruth took baseball and MADE it the American Pastime. After the 1919 "Black Sox Scandal" nearly ruined baseball, Ruth saved the game and changed it forever.

Jesse Owens: Owens is one of the best examples of transcending sport and entering international politics. His four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics showed up the Aryan supremacy message at the heart of Nazi propaganda.

Jackie Robinson: "Breaking the color barrier" is all you need to say about Robinson. Every black person who has ever played a professional sport since Robinson has him to thank for it.

Muhammad Ali: Few athletes from any sport achieve the international fame of Ali. As for transcending sport, no athlete has EVER topped Ali. From his objection to the Vietnam War (for which he ended up in prison), to his blatant braggadocio (which he always seemed to be able to bring to fruition), to his international fights ("The Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire, and "The Thrilla in Manilla" in the Philippines), to his lighting of the torch at the 1996 Olympics (which was one of the most touching sporting moments I have ever seen), Ali was truly "The Greatest".

Vince Lombardi: Whether it is fair to include a coach in a list of athletes is arguable, but what cannot be argued is how Lombardi became the very definition of "head coach". Winning three NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls in a span of seven years is still a significant accomplishment. But where he truly stands out from other great coaches was in the things he said. Although he is frequently, and incorrectly, credited with saying "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing", he had many other quotes which showed how great a motivator he was. Within American culture, Lombardi symbolizes everything in coaches (and leaders) from motivation to authoritarian dictatorship.

Michael Jordan: One of the things that impresses me about Jordan is that he is one of the smartest superstars to ever play any sport. That intelligence undoubtedly helped him to dominate professional basketball, but it also gave him a marketing savvy that few athletes have. As for transcending his sport, consider Jordan's first retirement from basketball, when he went to play baseball. How many athletes would be dragging the Media around to their minor league baseball games?

There are a few others who are borderline cases, like Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, and Joe Namath, but their fame has faded over time to such an extent that it can be argued they really didn't transcend their sport that much.

Now does anyone honestly think Brett Favre belongs on that list?


William R. Barker said...

Nope. I don't believe Favre belongs with "the greats." That said, I can't think of one contemporar football player who does.

Baseball... I think Jeter and perhaps A-Rod.

Hockey? No clue. Basketball? Same. But then again... I don't watch hockey or basketball. (*SHRUG*)

Tennis? Yeah... though Federer has absolutely no personality that I can detect, he's one of the greats of all time - a guy whose name will be remembered in the popular culture long after he's off the stage.

Brett Favre...? Nope. I just don't see it.


William R. Barker said...

Oh... almost forgot... Tiger Woods! Obviously one of "the greats."


EdMcGon said...

Right now, baseball lacks the popularity for any of it's players to transcend it. Outside of New York, and outside of baseball, no one really cares about Jeter or A-Rod.

Hockey and tennis are such fringe sports, it's hard to make an argument for ANY players there to transcend their sport. I would include Wayne Gretzky among those players who were borderline, but the way hockey is fading from the public stage makes him rather iffy.

As for tennis, if you aren't following tennis, you would have no clue about Federer. In my mind, the one tennis player who could be classified as borderline would be Billie Jean King, but that was mostly for an exhibition match. Plus, I think her star is fading somewhat.

In golf, I probably should have added Arnold Palmer to the list. As for Tiger Woods, I am still not sold on the idea of him transcending golf. He is certainly a dominant player, and he just might transcend golf eventually.

Robert A. George said...

Ed: Have to agree with Bill on Tiger. When I think of "transcending", I think it means someone who is not just dominant in their field (as Bill notes, that includes Federer). It means someone who's dominance makes front-page (not sports section) headlines. Tiger's emergence ten years ago, when he destroyed the Masters field and his 99-00 run doing the "Tiger slam" made golf a must-see sport in ways it never had. His polyglot background also brought in non-traditional fans to the sport.
He's also become as much of a marketing god as Michael Jordan too.

For similar reasons, I'm tempted to put the Williams sisters there, but that's a tougher call. They don't have the balls-to-the-walls focus and attention as Tiger does.

Oh, here's some grist for debate: How about O.J.? It's not in a good way, but he certainly transcends sports (and back in the 70s, he was almost Jordan-esque in advertising, movies, etc.)

William R. Barker said...


I don't know, Ed... perhaps we're simply using different measurements/definitions here. As RAG points out, we're not limiting our criteria to talent alone, but to talent that took on (takes on) a life of it's own in the public mindset.

Now maybe being from Georgia... (here it comes... wait for it...) you're simply surrounded by people who have more interest in and knowledge of horseshoes and bowling than tennis, but in the world at large - including the good old US of A - tennis "masters" are celebrities.

Here... let me try going southern... (wait for it... wait for it...)


True... I had to look up the correct spelling of his name... (*SMILE*)... but you get the point. Even though I'm not a NASCAR fan, I know who the hell Dale frigg'n Earnhardt was - and I knew him BEFORE his tragic death. I'm pretty confident it's not only tennis fans who know who Federer is and who know who Agassi, Connors, and McEnroe are.

Sticking to tennis, and again, agreeing with RAG, I too wouldn't bet the farm on the Williams sisters achieving the LASTING extragenerational renown of a Billie Jean King or Chrissy Everett, but time will tell.

I agree with you on Arnold Palmer... but that was always a given in my mind.

Finally, back to OJ...

OJ was famous long before he was infamous. He was LOVED and ADMIRED not simply because of who he was on the field as an athelete, but as a celebrity. Plus... "OJ" "The Juice" Kickass use of initials as nickname! Absent that bit of murderous unpleasantness (*OOPS*) kids who weren't born when OJ was playing would have know "of" him in the same way I know about Johnny Unitas.

Great topic charger, RAG!

You're up, Ed!


Rodak said...

I would have to nominate Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain as a player who transcended and permanently changed his sport.
In pro football, before there was O.J. there was Jim Brown. And how about Johnny Unitas?
I agree that Billijean King single-handly put women's tennis on the map as a big audience, television draw.
In hockey--Gordie Howe.
I would vote against Tiger Woods, if the idea is to choose persons who changed the direction of their sports. Arnold Palmer did much more to popularize golf than Tiger Woods has done. Tiger is merely unusually good.
In baseball, nobody has been more of a golden boy than Mickey Mantle was at his peak. He and Elvis were almost at the same level, circa 1957. Ted Williams also deserves a nod, if only for coming back from service in two wars and picking up right where he left off, as the best hitter in baseball, without missing a step.

Myrhaf said...

Tiger Woods is the best thing that ever happened to golf. He has brought people who had no interest in golf, such as inner city kids, into the game. Ratings go way up when he is in a tournament. People who otherwise have no interest in the game will watch when Tiger plays. Every player on the tour now makes much more money because of Tiger.

All the interest in Tiger is deserved, and not just a matter of style or charisma. He is the greatest player ever. He has changed the game and raised the level of competition by his commitment to practice, his intelligence and his working out to build muscle. He approaches it as a competitive sport, not a pastime. He makes shots no one else can make. The courses are being rebuilt because of the way he has changed the game.

If Tiger doesn't transcend his sport, no one does.

Rodak said...

Okay, I'll take your word for it. (It's obvious that even Tiger Woods hasn't been able to interest me much in golf.)

EdMcGon said...

I thought about O.J., but didn't include him because he achieved greater "infamy" because of the murder, NOT because of what he did in football.

As for Tiger Woods, I think the jury is still out on him. Part of the problem is golf itself. Golf does not lend itself easily to the average sports fan. The argument about poor inner city kids finding some kind of appeal in golf because of Tiger seems a bit lame. Poor kids can more easily get a football or basketball and play where they live, as opposed to plunking down a fortune for a set of clubs and some balls. Good luck finding a place to play too.

That said, I will grant that Tiger MIGHT eventually fit into this list.

You know Dale Earnhardt now, but will the average American know him in 20-30 years? Probably not.

Even though I live in "NASCAR Central", I really don't consider it a sport. Needless to say, that's not a popular position.

The people you named I would have to put in the borderline category. While they were outstanding players, I just don't see them as having transcended their sports.

Rodak said...

Wilt Chamberlain certainly did. Johnny Unitas rewrote the book that defines NFL quarterbacking. Jim Brown set all of his records in only nine seasons, as I remember. And he was a Pro-Bowler in all nine. He had everything O.J. had and more. Nobody has hit .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941. And he came close to doing it again in 1957, when he hit .388 at the age of 38 or 39. As a hitter, Ted Williams was transcendent. He hit a dinger in his last at-bat in the majors, as if to put an exclamation mark on his career.

EdMcGon said...

You're missing the point. How did these athletes impact the world beyond their sport?

For a short time, they became cultural icons because of their athletic prowess. But as time has passed, their cultural impact has lessened to where they are almost non-existent, except to sports historians.

Rodak said...

Tiger Woods means zip to me. But that's because I don't give a hoot about golf. I rank it with bowling.
How do you think that Babe Ruth impacted the world beyond baseball?
Or Michael Jordan beyond basketball?
Jesse Ownens and Jackie Robinson may be the only athletes you can say that about. Maybe you'd need to throw Jim Thorpe in there.

EdMcGon said...

I included Ruth and Jordan because they have become significant cultural icons. It is possible 100 years from now, neither will be known, but I'm not sure about this.

Rodak said...

Can you describe for me just how you think Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan have become "cultural icons" that transcend their sports?

EdMcGon said...

Babe Ruth is easy. My kids know who Ruth was, even though they can't quote any stats, nor do they even follow baseball.

As for Jordan, I am admittedly going out on a limb with him, since he hasn't passed the test of time yet. However, he still has cultural icon status, and he is still the standard for judging basketball excellence. Frankly, the only other person I can think of who so thoroughly dominated a team sport was Wayne Gretzky (but because hockey is too far removed from the popular culture, Gretzky's star is fading). But I also include Jordan because he is an ideal case study for marketers in the art of self-promotion. I suspect he will be for quite a long time.

Rodak said...

"Babe Ruth is easy. My kids know who Ruth was..."

Yeah, but what significance does Babe Ruth have outside of the context of baseball?
Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens both have significance outside of their sports in the context of civil rights and group pride.
Babe Ruth basically just hit alot of dingers and is famous for being a drunk and whore-monger.

EdMcGon said...

Ruth is a cultural icon. Love him or hate him, he is part of American lore, right up there with Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, James Dean, or Marilyn Monroe.

Cultures aren't necessarily objective about the heroes they pick, but Ruth is strangely appropriate to the American philosophy: work hard, party hard, die young. What's more American than that?

Rodak said...

Well...he did have bigger tits than Monroe...