Tipping Pitches: Sports: AP Male Non-Athlete of the Year


Monday, December 21, 2009

Sports: AP Male Non-Athlete of the Year

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Today, the Associated Press honored NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson as the Male Athlete of the Year.

I'll let you think about that for a moment.

I'm sure that Jimmy Johnson is a pretty good race car driver. Word is he won a bunch of races. His car is fast and he is able to move his car faster than the other guys. Sweet.

One problem: Jimmy Johnson isn't really an athlete.

Oh, the controversy! How could this poor excuse of a nonathletic blogger say such a thing? Easy, he's not an athlete. I said it again.

How could I make such a bold statement about NASCAR's greatest racer? Well, let's define what an athlete actually is.

This should be easy. We can actually take the definition from dictionary.com:
a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.
An athlete's ability is all based on their physical gifts and skills. It's a combination of speed, strength, agility, stamina and smarts that make you a good athlete.

You know what isn't an athlete? A horse or any other animal. A horse's jockey. Cars and other inanimate objects.

Not sure why this one gets so much opposition. We praise horses like they are athletes. Put them on the cover of magazines. Treat them like people. They're freaking animals, people. They do what animals do. They don't get paid. They don't get endorsements. Their owners do.

Is the jockey the athlete? Of course not. They are more of a guide. Even a coach.

It's surprising we don't give race cars the same attention we give horses. It's the car, after all, that is moving so fast. Yet, it's the car's jockey (the driver) that gets all of the credit. The -- eh hem -- athlete.

Does race car driving involve some agility, stamina and strength? Sure, some. Look, I get that the driver of a car needs to have some endurance to race around in circles for a few hours. It sucks to be in a vibrating vehicle and repeatedly turn, turn, turn 2,000 times. So driving does require the expenditure of some energy.

But so does walking. And driving to the store. And sitting at your computer, typing up a blog.

The question is whether the athletic ability of a race car driver is incredibly important. Can Jimmy Johnson run a 4.5 40? I have no idea. Can he bench 225 pounds 20 times? I doubt it. Does he even need to be an above average athlete? Nope. It's all about the car, the efficiency and communication of his team, and his skilled driving.

Driving is a skill. But driving, in itself, isn't athletic.

You know what is a good test of whether or not someone is paid to be an athlete? The person's willingness to cheat by ingesting performance enhancing drugs. If you want to be the fastest runner or swimmer in the world, you juice up. If you want to hit the most home runs, you juice up. If you want to be the biggest, strongest basketball player, you juice up. If you want to make the biggest hits and overpower your opposition, you juice up.

If you want to win in horse racing, you juice up the horse. You could juice up the jockey, but I doubt that would help. Would be funny, but wouldn't help.

If you want to win in car racing, you juice (soup) up the car. Maybe the driver could take meth, but I doubt that would help. Ultimately, the athletic ability of the driver means very little. Their skills matter (which is like saying math skills are important to a mathematician). But it's mostly about the car.

Without the car, you'd just have a bunch of dudes sitting on a track. Or, to put it another way, the most athletic driver in the history of race car driving will never win a race if they're driving a Toyota Corolla. Just as the most athletic jockey will never win a race if they're riding a Shetland pony.

There are a lot of NASCAR fans who are passionate about the sport's cars and drivers. This shouldn't change that. I don't get NASCAR, mind you, but you're welcome to enjoy it.

Enjoy the cars, racing endlessly around the track. And the cars' jockeys.


Charlie Zegers on December 21, 2009 said...

I'm half-convinced that the AP and other organizations give these awards to NASCAR drivers and golfers and the like just to generate three days of "WTF" posts like this one.

(That said... I think you underestimate the athleticism needed to control a race horse. Jockeys are athletes. Very small athletes, but athletes nontheless.)

Jon Loomer on December 21, 2009 said...

It's possible. I don't consider myself knowledgeable on horse or car racing, so I'm sure there is plenty I don't know. But still...

To compare a (horse or car) jockey's athleticism to that of LeBron James, Alex Rodriguez or Peyton Manning is laughable. Are they skilled? Sure. Can they do something that the other three athletes cannot? Sure. But I may make better pancakes than they do, too. That takes some work. I'm not a better athlete (though it's close).

Charlie Zegers on December 22, 2009 said...

Oh, I didn't say "better." But they do have to maintain what must be a staggering strength/size ratio in order to exert any control over those animals.

That said, it's tough to compare a vague concept like "athleticism" across sports. We can say with some certainty that Usain Bolt runs faster than A-Rod, who hits a baseball better than LeBron James, who can dunk better than Peyton Manning, etc. Can we really say that one is a better "athlete" than another? They're all highly specialized.

I guess you could make the argument that Jimmie Johnson is, in his own way, a specialized athlete as well. It does require some physical prowess to deal with the g-forces exerted on a driver, and some stamina to drive the lengths of time they drive, and some impressive reflexes and reaction time and hand-eye coordination, etc.

But in general, I can't help but associate athleticism with sports that, at the very least, occasionally require running.

Jon Loomer on December 22, 2009 said...

Agreed. I think the obstacle I can't get over is that in both cases they are sitting. Well, that and the fact that the true stars of their sports are the objects/animals they are riding.

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