King Kaufman's Sports Daily

S.I. Sportsman of the Year: Brett Favre. No, really. It's Brett Favre.

By King Kaufman

Published December 5, 2007 11:00AM (EST)

Brett Favre has been named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. Kind of a puzzling choice, if you ask me, but you didn't ask me.

It's clearly a lifetime achievement kind of thing. "It is for his perseverance and his passion that S.I. honors Favre with the 54th Sportsman of the Year award," writes Alan Shipnuck.

Favre, near the end, has had a nice half-season or so, a comeback after a couple of down years. He's never won the S.I. award despite being one of the most visible, successful and beloved American athletes of his era. Shipnuck's article is mostly about the intense love affair Packers fans and Favre have conducted over the years.

We like Brett Favre around here too. Good for Brett Favre. Yay, Brett.

Still weird, though.

Sports Illustrated's version isn't any more significant than any other Sports Person of the Year-type awards, none of which are significant at all. But it's probably the best-known, and it's more fun to debate the Person of the Year than the Most Valuable Player in a sport.

Favre is the fourth pro football player to win S.I. SOTY, not counting Reggie Williams, a Cincinnati Bengals linebacker who was one of eight "Athletes Who Care," winners in 1987 more for their good works than their athletic performance. If you didn't know and I asked you to name the four pro football players who'd been named S.I. Sportsman of the Year since 1954, would Brett Favre 2007 be among your first 100 guesses?

Joe Namath didn't win it in 1969. O.J. Simpson didn't in 1973. Walter Payton, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, John Elway, Lawrence Taylor, Lynn Swann, Roger Staubach. Just to name a few. None of them ever won it.

Namath illustrates the bind the magazine's in when it comes to naming NFL players SOTY. He would have made a great choice as the co-winner in 1969 with fellow New York hero Tom Seaver, who did win that year after leading the Miracle Mets to the World Series title. A decade later, Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Willie Stargell of the Pirates shared Sportsman honors after bringing a similar double championship to Pittsburgh.

But the season Namath made his indelible mark on pro football history by leading the Jets to the AFL title and then an upset win in the Super Bowl was 1968, not '69. The famous Super Bowl win was on Jan. 14, 1969, but naming Namath Sportsman of the Year in '69 would have been rewarding him for one day's work, though the magazine's done that too. Muhammad Ali won in 1974 for knocking out George Foreman.

Bradshaw was essentially rewarded for being the Super Bowl MVP in January '78, but that was already the Steelers' third championship of the decade, all with Bradshaw at quarterback, and they were on their way to their fourth. Namath's Jets had a nice season in 1969, but they didn't have that kind of dynasty going.

The other pro football players who have won were Joe Montana in 1990 and Tom Brady in 2005, each headed to the playoffs at the time the award was announced and coming off MVP performances while winning their third Super Bowl the previous winter.

Favre's having a nice season. The hook for the award is his revitalized performance and the fact that he's passing various career counting-stat marks. This season he's become the all-time leader in passes, touchdown passes and wins as a starting quarterback, and he's about two ordinary games away from becoming the all-time leader in passing yards.

Now, if setting all-time records in counting stats is a basis for being named Sportsman of the Year, there's a candidate who this year broke a career record held in much higher regard than any of those Favre has broken or will break soon. If Sports Illustrated's criteria were similar to those of Time magazine for its Person of the Year -- the newsmaker who "for better or worse, has most influenced events in the preceding year" -- Barry Bonds would be an easy choice.

Alex Rodriguez, with his MVP season and the contract drama that put him at the center of a New York soap opera for much of the year, wouldn't be far behind.

But Sports Illustrated rewards "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement." So no Barry, and, thanks mostly to that opt-out announcement during a World Series game, no Alex.

Brett Favre hasn't been to the Super Bowl since the 1997 season, hasn't won it since the year before that. The last time a person or team -- the 2004 Boston Red Sox won -- was named S.I. Sportsman of the Year without winning some kind of title was in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa shared the award. That one's not looking so hot through the prism of history. The last lifetime-achievement type of SOTY bestowal was Dean Smith in 1997.

Roger Federer, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods and Jimmie Johnson would all qualify under the championship category, as long as you're willing to consider golf and auto racing sports. Federer is the most dominant athlete of his generation and could plausibly be named Sportsman of the Year every year, but I suspect Brett Favre sells juuuuust a few more magazines.

This column responded to Sports Illustrated naming Lance Armstrong its 2002 Sportsman of the Year by creating its own Sports Person of the Year award, with the prize being dinner at my house. S.I. winners get a trophy. I gave the honor to Serena Williams, who is still entitled to that dinner.

Boy, that seems like a thousand years ago. Maybe I should throw it out.

Anyway, I didn't stick with the Salon SPOTY and name one every year because it felt like Official Columnist Shtick to me, and aside from bad predictions, What the Heck™, coin-flipping kids and "You can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere," I try to avoid shtick.

But I still like the criteria I laid out back in '03: "Around here we look for 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."

If Salon had a Sports Person of the Year, it'd probably be A-Rod, but I don't know yet. I'd like to wait for the year to end, if you don't mind. Wouldn't Sports Illustrated feel silly if, let's say, Adrian Peterson strung together four straight 300-yard games starting Sunday? That would be the American sporting achievement of the century to date, and S.I.'s Sportsman of the Year would be Favre, who's, you know, having a nice year.

Sports Illustrated asked readers for their thoughts on Favre's selection. The early consensus reaction seems to be about the same as mine: "I like him a lot," went one representative post, "but that's an odd choice."

Previous column: Kuhn in, Miller snubbed

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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