Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Following up from the comments of the last post ...

The author of the original article was kind enough to respond in the comments of the last post (which also contain some interesting insights from our resident soccer expert), and I was going to reply to him, but instead figured I'd just post my response here. So read his comment before this, if you want this to make any sense.

Pat: I can understand the argument that Tiger is the best athlete in the world, although I really think it's impossible to compare athletes in individual sports to those in team sports. I also think Federer might enter the discussion, even talking in terms of cracker-ass individual sports. But OK -- Tiger's the best. No problem with that claim.

But I don't think he's the world's biggest sports star, which was the phrasing that started this whole debate. It might be a matter of semantics -- these things usually are -- but "star" implies celebrity, implies notoriety and influence and fascination and so on. I simply don't agree that Tiger is the biggest athlete in the world in terms of those attributes. I'll get to the reasons in a second.

First, let me say that, with all due respect -- and that's quite a bit -- your comparison between Tiger's social relevance and that of Ali, Jackie Robinson, or even Michael Jordan is categorically, egregiously, laughably wrong. Tiger Woods won the Master's and became the greatest golfer ever. He broke a color barrier that had already been broken three decades ago. In terms of performance on the field (or course) of play, his accomplishment was probably the greatest by a black athlete ever.

But he's not even in the same conversation as Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan when it comes to social relevance. And comparing him to Jackie Robinson is absolutely ridiculous -- what, was Jesse Owens not available?

Let's just narrow it down to Ali.

Muhammad Ali was more relevant than Tiger Woods for a whole bunch of reasons, the most obvious being that he entered his prime as a black athlete during the height of the civil rights movement, was an outspoken political figure who lobbied for equality, fought in Africa, converted to an especially militant and controversial brand of Islam, refused to fight in the most controversial war this country has ever seen, and remains to this day -- more than 20 years after his retirement, as a disease-ridden shell -- one of the five most famous athletes in the world. Never mind the ridiculous Jackie Robinson comparison; what Ali did would be the equivalent of Tiger winning all of his titles, calling Jack Nicklaus a punk, getting drafted and refusing to fight in Iraq, living in exile, lobbying for reparations, changing his name to Tiger X, and winning the Afghanistan Open on international TV. And also somehow transcending his sport and making huge portions of the world care about golf just because he played it.

Tiger could never do that because, for the hundredth time, TIGER WOODS PLAYS GOLF AND NOBODY FUCKING CARES ABOUT GOLF! I don't know where you got the idea that I think most of the world cares about golf, or that golf ranks among the ten most popular sports in the world, but I don't, and it doesn't. Maybe five countries legitimately give a shit about golf, and I can almost guarantee you golf is not the most popular sport in any country in the world (I bet it's not in the top 3 anywhere). Guessing conservatively, 90% of the world has never held a golf club. I'd bet more than 80% has never seen a golf course. Hell, I'm a college-educated American, and I can't afford to play golf regularly. AMERICA IS NOT THE WORLD -- LESS THAN 6% OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION LIVES IN AMERICA! Jesus Christ, people, let's rein in our innate cultural ego for just a second and realize that Tiger Woods cannot possibly be the biggest sports star -- star, the person with the most sporting celebrity -- among 5,650,000,000 people who don't know a goddamned thing about the sport he plays. Muhammad Ali made people care about boxing because he transcended his sport through sheer personality and controversy. Tiger has no personality and shuns controversy, so he can't do that and never will.

As far as endorsements go, I really don't think the endorsements money makes for an accurate barometer of worldwide star power, because America dominates the wallets of the world, but not the hearts of sports fans. If Americans cared about soccer, the biggest soccer star in the world would instantly be the highest-paid sports star in the world. Know why? Because Americans have money. More money than just about anybody else. But poor people play sports, too, and poor people love sports, maybe even in ways we don't (see last post's comments for more on that). So his money doesn't make him the world's biggest sports star -- it makes him America's. There is a difference.

George Weah might indeed be unrecognizable to many Westerners. But he's not unrecognizable to many sports-loving people in Africa or Asia or South America (not to mention Europeans, many of whom are Westerners), and so it really doesn't matter whether 6% of the world (America) doesn't recognize him. He's still among the world's biggest sports stars.

Am I getting through here? Have I mentioned that America is not the whole world, nor does it speak for the whole world? Sweet me on a cracker, I feel like I'm talking to George W. Bush or something.

Not to mention that you never said active sports stars. So, just for kicks, here's a list of five bigger worldwide sports stars than Tiger, written in twenty seconds:

1. Yao
2. Jordan (no Jordan = no Nike = Tiger who?)
3. Beckham
4. Pele
5. Schumacher/Ronaldinho/Ronaldo/maybe even Zidane

Now, in closing, I realize that this no longer really relates to your story's lede. Even if you do actually believe it, I'm assuming that the reason you said Tiger was the biggest sports star in the world was because he's the biggest thing to hit Tucson maybe ever, and even adding a "maybe" makes the lede sound like shit. I would have said the same thing. So I'm not saying any of this discussion had any place in your story.

I just can't believe Tiger's the biggest sports star in the entire world.


Diesel said...

There are not enough people in China and America (where he's about as big a star as Tim Duncan) to make Yao Ming the biggest sports star in the world. The rest of the world just doesn't give a shit about him, because he's only special to Chinese people or people who care passionately about NBA basketball.

Golf is bigger than you think, but it's not big enough to make Tiger the world's biggest sports star.

Which brings us back to Beckham; he's really the only answer. I sense a lot of intent behind some of the other answers; just because more people should care about Weah than Beckham doesn't mean they do.

I doubt, highly, that Schumacher or Federer's global Q rating comes close to that of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo or Henry. Adjusting for all time, I'd put my money down on Pele and Maradona in terms of name recognition over just about any athlete not named Jordan, Beckham or Ali.

I wish I could spend more time on this, but I'm swamped.

Pat said...

Ya ever see the episode of "The Critic" when Jay Sherman (Jon Lovitz) tries to make his own movie? He goes to see an old film professor, who says, "Jay, you were not meat to create; you were meant to tear apart."
All of us are contrarians, granted, but if you had to build a consensus, I still argue it's Tiger.
Some points, bulletted Detroit-style:
- We're America! Sure, we make up 6 percent of the world's population, but we matter more politically, socially and culturally than any country on the planet. It might make me sound like a rube, but it's true. If it weren't, we'd be sitting down to listen to Dar Karmisar or a song by Shonen Knife.
As much as it sounds great to consider ourselves just a participant on the world stage, we are the leader -- especially in the sports world.
In terms of influence, I'd say we surpass 6%. You'd agree, yes?
-I should have phrased teh Tiger race thing more carefully. He missed a golden opportunity to speak out about racial issues after the Masters -- making him inferior to Jim Brown, Jackie Robinson, etc. -- but what he actually did on the field changed the cultural and, most importantly, economic makeup of his sport. Entire classes of people who would not have considered golf do now. That was 10 years ago! He crossed a barrier that won't be crossed again until the first active, dominant athlete announces that he is gay.
=The fact that a soccer player -- or tennis player or cricket player -- wouldn't be recognnized in the US is a GIANT DEAL. It's like a rap hit being big everywhere but New York; that doesn't make it good or bad, but it makes it nowhere near as relevant as it could be.
Now, breaking down Ste's top 5 (and the fact Tiger wasn't on the top 5 is wrong, and he knows it);
1. Yao Ming. I could break down how many players have averaged more points and rebouds during their careers than Yao, but I'm lazy. Suffice it to say, he's just not that good.
Did he expand basketball into the East? Sure. Would I rather have Dwight Howard on my team? Yes.
No one has the combination of Tiger -- best athlete in his sport, and recognizable (if not beloved) worldwide.
2. MJ. Retired. Not an athlete anymore. I love semantics.
3. Beckham. He's not the biggest soccer star in the world. He's the biggest soccer star in Western Europe -- and no longer the best, by any stretch. How could a group of people decide he's the biggest sports star in the world if he's not the biggest in his own sport?
It's like Marcus Williams going into the NBA Draft. He's not even the best small forward on his team.
4. Pele. Retired. Was big in America for 2 seconds -- something we can't say about Michael Schumacher -- and might be the best soccer player ever. But he's 66 — a year and a half OLDER than Muhammed Ali.
5. Schumacher? Would you recognnize him if he walked down the street? Would anyone outside Europe. He's like Jurgen Klinsmann -- he could come to America and walk the streets and no onne would recognize him.
Ronaldinho/Ronaldo? Aren't they the same guy?
And Zidane? Here's my argument -- Americans look at Zidane the way those outside the US look at OJ Simpson. He did one ludicrous thing, and that far outweighs any past athletic prowess. To the most relevant culture in the world -- again, it's true, though admittedly sounds myopic -- Zidane is the head-butt guy. Nothing more.
In closing (man, that sounds pompous), the entire point of trying to reach a consensus is trying to find the one person who matters (at least a little) to the most people. And the US gets more than 6% of the vote.

Diesel said...

3. Beckham. He's not the biggest soccer star in the world. He's the biggest soccer star in Western Europe -- and no longer the best, by any stretch. How could a group of people decide he's the biggest sports star in the world if he's not the biggest in his own sport?

He is the biggest soccer star in the world, by leaps and bounds. It's not even close. Beckham might even be the single most ubiquitous athlete in the history of global sports; that's how insane his popularity is. His merits as a footballer became irrelevant some time ago.

Bryan Rosenbaum said...

Pat — Here I thought you learned something from the US-Mexico game. You're allowing the 'America is the only culture that matters' to fog up your way of thinking.

If you are going to throw away the soccer player being the world's most popular athlete argument based on grounds that the USA, first and foremost in the world in everything, hasn't embraced soccer, then certainly one could say that a golfer, on basis that he doesn't play the most popular sport in the world, cannot be, either.

Nobody in history can touch Mohammed Ali, Pele and Michael Jordan for being the world's most popular athletes because they transcended sport and were pretty much the forefathers in doing so. Current athletes, I believe the list looks somewhat like this:

1. Beckham: He is one of the most recognizable people, let alone athletes, on the planet. Left one club, Man U, for another, Real, to sell jerseys in Asia. The fact that he just inked a $250 million deal to play in the US and was on SportsCenter for a few days? Umm, yeah, he's made it here. Washed up? Just last weekend, after his coach banished him from the team, he was recalled, scored a goal and was the toast of Madrid. That same coach said he should still play for England. His marriage to a Spice Girl means little, but it does connect him more with the female base. He's not just a famous athlete, he's a massive, ubiquitous celebrity. This meets your qualification for being a somebody here and not just the rest of the world.

2. Zinedine Zidane: Scored twice in the 1998 World Cup final. Ejected from one eight years later. A mad genius, and an Algerian immigrant in Europe to boot. Like Tiger being a black in golf, an absolute idol to an entire Arab race that believes they get the shit end of the stick in sports.

3. Ronaldinho: Until the World Cup, the best player in the World. The head of Nike's World Cup campaign. Brazilian players epitomize what's best about soccer, and are loved everywhere. If I had a dollar for every non-Brazilian wearing Brazilian gear in Germany.

4. Tiger Woods: Dominant, but a name to most people because they don't watch golf. Doesn't play in Dubai and Shanghai to reach a fan base, he goes because they pay him the most to show up.

5. Roger Federer/Michael Schumacher: Dominant like Tiger, just less popular because of the American swing vote.

St said...

Pat, your America argument is fucking ridiculous. If I thought you were completely serious about it -- which I don't -- I'd buy you a ticket to another country -- any country -- just in hopes of breaking through the asinine myopia you so alarmingly exhibit in your comments here.

Please tell me you're just trying to rile me up (if so, it's starting to work). It's like you're trying to personify all the (valid) criticisms I always level at your profession: xenophobia, racism, and a grossly inflated sense of entitlement and importance.

Bryan Rosenbaum said...

Wow, that's the use of the word "ubiquitous" in two straight postings

Diesel said...

B - I have a major bone to pick with you here; do you actually believe that Ronaldinho's a bigger star than Maradona? I'll admit to being a little skewed because he's a fucking superhero in Italy. But, as far as I can tell, he's 1a to Pele.

Bryan Rosenbaum said...

I just took into account current athletes. But yes, historically only two soccer players can realistically enter the conversation: Pele and Maradona. If Zidane won this year's cup, he'd be there too.

Diesel said...

I actually think Zidane's headbutt will end up serving him just as well; it's already destined to be his "Hand of God" moment, although with a slightly different tone in terms of how the story is recounted.

Pat said...

I'm not racist, Ste.
I'm just saying that, to discount America as having only 6% of the world's influence isn't accurate. Corporate dollars and wide-ranging media -- not to mention the depth and variation of sport here -- makes the country's athletes more influential on a global scale than those of, say, Thailand or Cote d'Ivoire.
I would hardly accuse most sportswriters of "xenophobia, racism, and a grossly inflated sense of entitlement and importance."
The nature of media in itself is either to cater to a niche market (sports, baseball, curling) or to a region (Tucson, Abu Dhabi, etc). That does not make any institution "xenophobic" -- it means they're writing to their audience.
To have a true global worldview, the Philly papers would have to run Nippon Ham Fighters gamers next to their Phillies stories.
That's not happening, but it's not because they hate the rest of the world or have an inflated sense of importance. They're writing about what their audience cares about.
To assume that sportswriters, in particular, do not espouse a broader worldview doesn't make sense to me -- in what situations, exactly, have you seen them be given the opportunity to? (And no, the "David Beckham's coming to America, but Soccer Still Sucks!" columns don't count; those are stupid).
And how is arguing for Tiger Woods and not white Michael Schumacher racist? If anything, I've said that the influence of Woods as a black American has changed the way his sport operates across the world. I don't care if he's American or British or even French Canadian.
I'll pose this question to you again -- do you know what Michael Schumacher looks like? If Ronaldinho walked into the bar and ordered a drink, would you give him a second look?
I say no.
I brought this up to Doyle earlier; NASCAR, as an inherently American "sport" -- not ubiquitous (that's No. 3) -- will never have any kind of global pull. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't be popping up on billboards in Germany.
There are sports in America -- damn near all of them -- that only matter here. I do in no way suggest that those athletes will ever be popular on a global scale.
I'm just saying that Tiger Woods is, in part because he happens to cull American advertising and television exposure.
This week's Match Play is on TV in 180 countries; the PGA COO told me the other day there was no way there would ever move it out of the country because it doesn't make sound business sense, TV-wise. And golfers, as they did in Austrailia in 2001, won't go to Match Play then.
Do we penalize Tiger for this? Of course not.
Stupid Xenophobic media.