There are many foolish, overhyped things in American sports, but few can match the annual Heisman Award in either regard.
The Heisman supposedly goes to the year’s best college football player, but that’s pretty silly to begin with. College football these days is a 50-players-a-team game manning 11 positions on each side of the ball, with each position requiring quite-different abilities and duties. Multiply that by about 700—the number four-year institutions that field teams—and figuring out which individual performs best taxes credulity.
The Heisman folks solve that problem by not addressing it. They eliminate all but the 70 or so schools that perform in the five “power” conferences (the SEC, Big Ten, PAC-12, Big 12 and ACC), then cross out just about everyone who plays defense or is an offensive ”down” lineman. Aside from a small handful of tight ends or wide receivers and one defender (Michigan DB Charles Woodson in 1997), all of the 78 winners to date have been quarterbacks or running backs. The next selectee, I’m sure, also will be one of those.
The provenance of the award is equally questionable. From its origin in 1935 it has carried the imprimatur of the Downtown Athletic Club, a private group of besuited jock sniffers based in Lower Manhattan, N.Y., but that outfit went bust a dozen years ago and it has bounced around since. Now it’s pretty much owned by ESPN, which stages its culminating, Oscar-style award ceremony in one mid-town venue or another. It’s always a long broadcast leading to a short conclusion (“and the winner is….”) whose result usually has been anticipated. It’s good to prepare for the evening (December 13 this year) by having a Netflix disc at the ready.
The DAC’s first award carried its own name and considered only players from schools east of the Mississippi River. It went to halfback Jay Berwanger of the U. of Chicago, an institution that dropped big-time sports in 1939, thus keeping its skirts clean of the muck that has followed. The next year the prize went national and took the name of John Heisman, a leather-helmet-era football coach who ended his days as the club’s athletics director.
Heisman may have been a fine fella, but his credentials as a sportsman are suspect. He made his rep by coaching some good Georgia Tech teams from 1904 through 1919, and was on the Engineers’ sideline on the October day in 1916 when they racked up football’s most-lopsided win at any level, a 220-0 trouncing of much-smaller Cumberland College.
The story has it that Heisman had it in for Cumberland because he believed it had used ringers in defeating Georgia Tech in baseball the spring before. Cumberland had discontinued football before the 1916 season began but Tech threatened to sue if it didn’t fulfill its contract, so the Tennessee school reluctantly sent a 14-man squad. Tech ran 40 plays from scrimmage in that game, all runs, netting 978 yards and all of its 32 touchdowns that didn’t result from fumble runbacks. Cumberland registered minus-28 yards in 41 plays. Tech scored 42 of its points in the last quarter.
Possession of the stiff-armed trophy is decided by an electorate of 929, including 870 sportswriters or broadcasters and 58 former winners. The final vote (yes, one) is determined by an ESPN poll. The writers and broadcasters are divided among six geographic regions, 145 for each. That must mean that in some sparsely populated areas just about every weekly newspaper sportswriter has a vote. Each elector can name three players with the top choice getting three points, the second two and the third one. Some years, the last being in 2009 when Alabama RB Mark Ingram was selected, the winner gets fewer than 50% of the available points.
Electors do not make their choices in a vacuum—far from it. The Heisman is more a contest of sports information directors than of football players, with the SID of every school that thinks it has a candidate pouring out publicity supporting his kid, beginning before the season’s start. I never had a vote but I used to get some of the stuff anyway. One school (can’t remember which) Fedexed me a sturdy, wood-handled fan consisting of the photographed face of the player it was hyping. I kept it around to swat flies.
It’s up to the fans to decide how well the process works, but it’s worth noting that some non-legendary players have been honored. A few include Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam (1994), Florida QB Danny Wuerffel (1996), Nebraska QB Eric Crouch (2001) and Oklahoma QB Jason White (2003). The year that last guy won his competition included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Larry Fitzgerald.
College football (and college sports in general) gets seamier by the year, and some of its shmutz has rubbed off on the Heisman. The 2005 award, to USC running back Reggie Bush, later was revoked when it was revealed he’d received more than $300,000 in cash and gifts from an agent while in school, including the rental cost of the limo he rode to receive his Heisman.
Bush, however, seems like a pretty straight guy compared with the two most-recent winners. Johnny “Boys Just Wanna Have Fun” Manziel, the 2013-winning QB from Texas A & M, left school for the pros a year later in a cloud of rude tweets, empty beer bottles and allegations of autograph selling. Jameis Winston, the Florida State QB, won last year despite having been accused of rape by a fellow student whose charges were deep-sixed by the local and university police. Since then he’s added to his rap sheet by being caught shop lifting and helping terrorize his campus neighborhood in a pellet-gun war, although that’s no big deal at a school where footballers are issued “get out of jail free” cards.
Last year’s Heisman reminded of a Second City sketch in which an actor playing a Chicago politician sang “If indicted I will run, if convicted I will serve.” I wonder what kind of encore we can expect this year.