Political pundits--those columnists and talking heads who discuss the government and issues of the day--often end up shaping the news themselves. Influential writers frequently make the move into politics or at the very least offer up their loving paeans to whichever party or individuals appeal to them the most. Their thoughts and suggestions no doubt have some influence on official decisions and policy.
Sports writers also have some clout within the world they write about. Not in the same incestuous way that political hacks court their subjects in the hopes of being asked into the inner circle. Sports journalists rarely, if ever, become part of a team in any other facet except professional sycophant.
But they do channel the thoughts and passions of numerous fans. And on occasion they help to stoke a wave of sentiment that leads to a move by management.
The sports media also chooses the recipients for a number of different awards. Winning such official accolades can boost a player’s profile and lead to consideration for hall of fame induction.
A major league baseball player, Curt Schilling, recently had a clause written into his contract that would add a million dollar bonus for garnering even a single vote for the Cy Young award, which is given to the best pitcher of the year. The writers on the Cy Young voting committee convened a meeting and decided to disqualify from consideration any players who have negotiated such incentives.
A fair decision I believe. With the number of ethical questions already swirling around baseball, the game’s image doesn’t need to be further tarnished in the eyes of fans. Follow that path and how long before cries of “kickback” are made when a player with such a contractual provision receives a vote from a writer he is friendly with?
Beyond that, the whole notion of sports writers being handed the power to decide who is crowned the best, is fraught with at least a few potential pitfalls.
The Lou Marsh Trophy for the Canadian athlete of the year was given to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby last week. Crosby was in the running against various other athletes including Steve Nash of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and downhill skier Erik Guay.
A good discussion on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown raised some interesting issues surrounding the whole voting process. McCown, who was one of the panel members, highlighted the criteria taken into account when voting on candidates.
One of the considerations is "depth of field," which makes it hard to fathom how any amateur sports or less popular athletic pursuits have athletes worthy of the prize.
However, it's not the only factor scrutinized when casting the final votes. It seems there are a number of qualifiers given more or less weight depending on whichever pick needs to be justified every year.
In the panel discussion on Prime Time Sports, those who were part of the process admitted the sentiment that "a hockey player hasn’t won it for a while and so it was due," received some play. Nice for hockey fans but ultimately irrelevant.
Beyond the fact that Crosby is a completely deserving winner of the award, his cause couldn't have been hindered by a few other aspects. First, he has the full marketing support of the NHL, who have anointed him as the chosen one. Also, besides his incredible talent and work ethic, he is just a very likable and mature individual.
Ostensibly outside the parameters of such awards, it's impossible to deny the effects personality and image have in what is partially a popularity contest despite the supposed "rules" involved. If Crosby were a nasty son-of-a-bitch with a handful of off-ice incidents under his belt, would he be such an easy choice?
Thankfully, it's not a question that needs to be answered. Like the other high profile ambassadors of the game who went before (Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr), Crosby seems blessed with that natural sense of honour and decency. (Another discussion worth pursuing: does exceptional character help build superior athletes or does it come after someone with talent has enjoyed the special privileges and treatment that society bestows on such youngsters?)
Aside from those questions, are there any conflicts of interest involved in the player/media relationship? What if a journalist follows a particular athlete closely, befriends him or her or is considering the possibility of writing a book about that individual? Should they be part of a particular panel when that player is in the running?
There are other awards decided by fellow players, management or even fans. It's unlikely that less bias exists amongst those groups of people.
Still, at least an open discussion of the voting process creates some pressure and a greater sense of responsibility for those involved. When these committees remain shrouded in secrecy, it creates the perception, rightly or wrongly, that politics and favouritism trumps merit.
And finally, congratulations to Sidney Crosby for being chosen as Canada's athlete of the year!