The winner of the third annual Salon Sports Person of the Year, the coveted SSPotY, is ... everybody. Which is a nice way of saying nobody.
2004 was the year of the team, and accordingly Sports Illustrated and ESPN both gave the Boston Red Sox their Sportsman of the Year award. The Sporting News gave its prize to Tom Brady, but while Brady is a very good quarterback, he's not a transcendent star who's risen above his sport. He's just the face of a great team.
Coach Bill Belichick might have been a better choice, but he wouldn't have looked as good on the cover.
We brook no such cop-outs at Salon, preferring instead the cop-out of naming no one.
It's not Sports Men of the Year or Sports Team of the Year. It's Sports -- in our equal-opportunity case -- Person of the year. Around here we look for a singular athlete who fits the criteria thought up on the spot two years ago: "someone who dominates his or her sport, and sports that Americans watch carry more weight than those we ignore. If that dominant performer also separates from the pack, becomes a hot topic around the water cooler, so much the better."
We're not believers in the everybody gets a trophy culture around here. As with the Pulitzers and the Nobels, if nobody earned it, nobody gets it. So the 2004 SSPotY is declared vacant.
Here are some of the candidates who didn't quite make the grade:
Barry Bonds: If we used Time's Man of the Year criteria -- the most significant figure -- Bonds would win hands down. He spent most of the year dominating his sport, and he's spent the offseason dominating the headlines, with the leak of his grand jury testimony in which he said he'd taken steroids, though he said he didn't know what they were.
In fact, Bonds fits the SSPotY criteria pretty well, and it's yet another cop-out not to just give it to him. But there's an element of praise to the Sports Person of the Year award that makes it feel wrong to give it to Bonds in his moment of disgrace.
I may look back on this and kick myself for not giving the award to Bonds. It flies in the face of my argument that he should keep his four straight MVP awards and his place in the record books. I'm still trying to figure out the proper response to the steroid revelations, but at the moment all I can do is follow my gut, and it's telling me not to make Bonds the Sports Person of the Year.
It's also telling me to go easy on the chili dogs.
Also worth noting: Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling.
Michael Phelps: The swimmer was the most hyped American athlete going into the Olympics, and he pretty much delivered. He had a chance to win a record eight gold medals, and while he downplayed the idea and those in the know gave him approximately zero chance to pull it off, it made for great copy, and few media outlets skipped their turn to feature Phelps.
Phelps won six golds and two bronzes, but despite all the attention, he never rose to the level of the other American aquatic heroes of the last three decades, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Greg Louganis and Janet Evans. He didn't have the boys' movie-star looks or Evans' charm. But he'll probably be back in four years, already well known, in his physical prime and, if all goes well, nearly a college graduate. 2008 could be his year.
Also worth noting: American swimmers Natalie Coughlin, who won two golds, two silvers and a bronze and does have the looks and charm to be a star beyond her sport but hasn't become one; and Amanda Beard, a lesser swimmer with a gold and two silvers, but a popular figure with the lad-magazine set because of her steamy photos. Plus: gymnast Paul Hamm, who had a wild ride in Athens. He got to keep his gold medal, but his handling of the controversy, which could have made him a huge figure if done right, was clumsy.
Diana Taurasi: She led Connecticut to its third straight NCAA basketball title, played on the gold medal-winning Olympic team and was the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA, where she easily won the Rookie of the Year award. Other than that, kind of a quiet year.
Also worth noting: Ben Wallace's hairdo became the NBA's most famous since Dennis Rodman's and he was the heart and soul of the champion Pistons, but he's not a good enough player or big enough personality to be a serious candidate. Kobe Bryant would have been a good candidate under Time's criteria. He generated more ink than anyone other than Bonds, though most of it -- about his rape trial and his organizational power play with the Lakers -- was negative.
Lance Armstrong: He won a record sixth straight Tour de France. How about that! We've discussed in this space why I don't think Armstrong fits the SSPotY criteria. The award was actually invented to be given to someone other than him. He's great. He's just not ever going to get to be the Salon Sports Person of the Year by riding a bike.
Smarty Jones: Not, technically speaking, a person.
Also worth mentioning, just for general excellence that doesn't quite reach SSPotY levels for one reason or another: Peyton Manning, Roger Federer, Kevin Garnett, Martin St. Louis, Emeka Okafor.
Previous Salon Sports Person of the Year winners:
2003: LeBron James
2002: Serena Williams
Previous column: The year in sports
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