i guess I wasn't paying attention to sports this year. I sure thought I was, but the folks at Sports Illustrated have set me straight on that point. They've chosen a 20-year-old freshman pro-golfer with two -- count 'em, two! -- titles to his name as the Sportsman of the Year.
As it happens, I'm a prety big fan of young Tiger Woods, the former Stanford golfer who has already begun to cut a pretty big swath through the ranks of professional golf. And, God knows, pro-golf needed a shot of this kind of adrenaline. Woods has begun doing for golf what Muhammad Ali did for boxing, what John McEnroe did for tennis, what Bobby Fischer did for chess. He's given the game pizzazz, excitement, joie de vivre. He's elevated some aspects of the game to an art form.
But Sportsman of the Year? Get real, SI!
How about the Denver Broncos' stellar quarterback John Elway? Not one of my favorite people (I've never quite forgiven his arrogance as a college grad when he told the NFL to stuff it and refused to allow himself to be drafted by the team with rights to the Number 1 pick ... and got away with it) but as a sportsman, Elway has been at the top since he came into the league. And he's having a banner season in the waning years of his pro career.
Or how about either of two guys named Michael -- Johnson, whose rare double victory at the Olympics was as stunning as it was convincing, and Jordan, who came roaring back after a brief self-imposed exile to dominate the NBA like no player has done since ... well, since the last time he did it.
This award really seemed to be more about media hype, in which SI itself played no minor role, than about any reality of Woods' achievements or character. With his unprecedented Nike endorsement deal, Woods benefited from a PR machine the likes of which has never before been seen in any of the so-called "minor" sports.
Race, too, played an undeniable role in his selection, perhaps more blatantly than at any time since 1992, when the magazine quite belatedly honored African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe on the eve of his death from AIDS. Woods is a mixed-race person with Thai, African, Chinese, American Indian and European ancestry. The article in SI's pages announcing the award to Woods includes an almost fawning description of a 50-ish Caucasian woman who told Tiger, "When I watch you ... I feel like I'm watching my own son," to which the SI editor adds, "and we feel the quivering of the cosmic compass that occurs when human beings look into the eyes of someone of another color and see their own flesh and blood."
With a dutiful nod in the direction of a quivering cosmos, this award really ought to honor the top athlete in a particular sport. And with but one notable exception, that's exactly what it has done since its inception 42 years ago. The exception came in 1987 when the award went to a group of representative "Athletes Who Care." I'm not sure anyone understood that one.
If Woods had broken the pro golf color line -- ` la Jackie Robinson or Arthur Ashe -- I might be able to understand the SI selection. But there was this golfer once named Lee Elder who did a pretty good job of trailblazing the PGA on the race issue. And although both the PGA and golf in general remain unappetizingly white, Woods' appearance on the scene doesn't have anything resembling major social impact. If Woods had been a football, baseball or even a tennis player with similar stats, there would have been no compelling reason in 1996 to select him for this honor. In fact, to do so would have been ludicrous.
I begrudge Woods this award because of the frequency with which I've had to use words in this article like "started" and "begun." His career is not yet long enough, his record not clear enough, to justify this award. As much as I like him and enjoy watching him play, he should not have been feted this way this soon. He's not the best athlete this year. Hell, he's not even the best golfer yet. Sure, he shows every sign of becoming the best golfer and he has numerous commendable qualities as a person, but athlete of the year? Gimme a break.
Former sportswriter Dan Shafer is Salon's Webmaster.
Should Tiger Woods have received SI's Sportsman of the Year award? Talk it over in Table Talk.
Martha Stewart's Taliban Christmas
This special Martha Stewart Christmas show was slated to go on the air last week, but was kept from airing at the request of the United Nations. Through his connections in Kabul, sleuth Art Silverman acquired a transcript.
By ART SILVERMAN
(Music plays: Nat King Cole's "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire")
martha: This is Martha Stewart -- with some hints on how to prepare your home for a Traditional Taliban Christmas. You never know when friends from Kabul might drop in, and I'm sure you'll want to be ready. Here to help me today is Iman Rafajamah Barakour. Welcome, Rafajamah.
Rafajamah: Is greatest of venal sins to be here, Martha. You risk my wrath with this appearance.
Martha: We'll start by hanging colorful lights around the fireplace.
Martha: Next, we put up a lovely sprig of mistletoe in the hallway.
Martha: Yummy eggnog and rum in a bowl in the dining room adds that perfect touch of spice to the festivities.
Rafajamah: Absolutely forbidden.
Martha: No Christmas is complete without a wreath on the front door.
Rafajamah: Punishable by flogging.
Martha: Candy canes sprinkled through the house bring joy to all.
Rafajamah: Will cause loss of right forearm.
Martha: And, of course, toys for tiny tots.
Rafajamah: Your ears will be thrown to dogs. (Becomes aware of music.) What is this Satanic singing? I condemn this music and the sons of those who composed it.
Martha: Well, that just about wraps it up. Thank you for being with us today, Rafajamah.
Rafajamah: You're welcome, Martha. But for your demonic display of female flesh and your unholy manner I must now disembowel you and feed your entrails to jackels.
Martha: (collapsing to floor with fixed smile) That's all for now. Next week ... A festive New Year's fireworks celebration with the Tupac Amaru in Lima.
Art Silverman is a senior producer of All Things Considered at National Public Radio
Smoke and mirrors
I've been scared all my life. People think I'm a woman in control, or that I'm this glamorous creature that can only be cast in parts that are glamorous or grand or chic or whatever. It's not where my head is at all.
-- Lauren Bacall, 71, in an interview appearing in Thursday's New York Times