What we have here is a real conundrum of our collective sporting priorities. This week saw the announcements of the Associated Press's Male and Female Athletes of the Year.
Jimmie Johnson won the guys' award, and Serena Williams beat out a distinguished (?) field that included...two horses (?!?!?) for the women's award.
I have a problem with neither of those announcements, particularly Jimmie...and to be fair, I am very, very far from a NASCAR fan.
What I find amusing is the assorted cyber-hysteria that's been launched on both sides. For every post crying about how Serena's going Chernobyl on a lineswoman is just the culmination of a career full of racist calls against her and her sister Venus, there's one going, "WTF? How is a race car driver an athlete?"
Let's address Serena first. Did she have a great year? Damn right, she did. Two major titles, a semifinal in a third, and the WTA Tour Championship is not too shabby for one year. But do an informal survey, and ask how many people heard about her winning the Australian and Wimbledon. Then ask how many heard about her threatening to shove a tennis ball down a lineswoman's throat. Uh-huh. Thought so.
Still, with that, we're in a non-Olympic year, so there's no gymnast, figure skater, or swimmer to come along and make the world feel warm and fuzzy. It pretty much means that we're stuck with a tennis player or a golfer as our Female Athlete of the Year, Candace Parker's welcome upset last year notwithstanding.
Considering tennis's staid, prim and proper image, which many of the surly bastards who play it seem to be dying to be rid of, Serena's outburst at Arthur Ashe Stadium is that game's version of Ron Artest diving into the crowd in Detroit. There wasn't much of a groundswell of Athlete-of-the-Year support for him that year, was there?
It could be supposed that the AP was merely rewarding someone who actually, for the first time in a few years, simply showed up and did her job all season long. Serena's been diversifying the portfolio for a while, with photo shoots, fashion lines, TV and music video work. Hell, she and Venus even bought into the Miami Dolphins this year. For a while, it looked like she was simply going to lapse into retirement, as tennis requires a lot more hard work than simply being fabulous.
To be fair, much of her offcourt stuff coincided with her attempt to rehab a knee injury. Still, tennis is pretty unique in that a player can essentially set his or her own schedule, and for a while, some were nervous that Serena wasn't coming back at all.
Now, she's all the way back, and winning major awards left and right. Good for her...but she would not have gotten my vote. And, no, I wouldn't be putting in a ballot for a horse, either.
Give me the national women's college basketball Player of the Year, Maya Moore of the UNDEFEATED UConn Lady Huskies. Tennis is becoming a game dominated by tantrums anyway, why continue rewarding them?
Now, back to Mr. Jimmie. People can debate all they like about whether or not Serena's a role model, that's all personal preference.
For a good ol' semantic argument, we can get into the whole school of thought that says "Racing ain't no sport! Hell, I can go get in my car and turn left a thousand times, don't make me no athlete!" Even better are the idiots who've firmly convinced themselves that they could put down the clicker, haul their fat asses out of the La-Z-Boy, go down to the track, and trade paint with Tony Stewart, all because they have a couple of speeding tickets from doing a blazing 30 through a school zone in their Corolla.
Driving in NASCAR is pretty damn far from your morning commute, I don't care what kind of idiots populate the driving public in your metropolitan area. Have someone shove a catheter in you, put you in a snowsuit and helmet, go sit in a sauna for four hours, and have said sauna whipped around like a NASA space capsule simulator until you're feeling two G's for four hours, then tell me you'd like to go back and try it 36 times in 42 weeks, to say nothing of extra time that you might need to practice. Over-under on you vomiting up a kidney: three minutes, 18 seconds.
"Hell, I drive 500 miles at a stretch all the time!" Do you do so without bothering to stop (or even slow down) to relieve yourself? Do you do so with no A/C in a building whose ground level temperature can often reach 120 degrees? Do you do so with 42 other yobbos slamming into you from all sides, doing things that, if done on the Interstate, would get you locked up for attempted vehicular homicide?
If you answered yes to any of those, let me know where you live so I can make sure to never move to or even drive through that state or any that border it, please and thank you.
The days of pudgy guys and rednecks who live on beer and cigarettes in between races being top race car drivers is pretty much over. Now, guys like Carl Edwards are here to make all us armchair commentators feel completely inadequate. That's the guy who does a backflip out of the car after driving that speed, in that heat, with all those other guys surrounding him, for four hours straight. Tell him he's not an athlete.
Anyone who wants to advance the theory that "the machine does all the work"...well, I have to wonder if they've ever even driven a car, hell, even ridden a bicycle. Whatever vehicle you're piloting, it goes where YOU MAKE IT GO. A stock car doesn't have power steering like your car and mine, so it takes some tremendous upper-body strength to wrestle those fuckers through turns and maintain a line that doesn't send you careening into someone else's path, potentially leading to a flying crash with shrapnel spraying everywhere.
Usain Bolt is a phenomenal athlete, but his work is done ten seconds at a time...er, sorry, 9.5. Roger Federer is an awesome athlete who works for four or five hours at a time (even if the matches are only that long at four tournaments a year), but he gets to wander around between points, sit down every second game, and sit down longer between sets.
It takes some serious endurance to sit in those kinds of temperatures, hour after hour, week after week, all summer long, primarily in the baking heat of the southern region of the country, keeping your mind right every minute. You and I zone out while we drive, just thinking about errands we need to run after work, getting lost in a song on the radio, or just staring blankly at the world going by. These guys can't do that for even a split second, because if they stop to think, "Oh, are we out of milk?" then boom, they could die.
Racing is one of the few sports (bullfighting is about the closest parallel) where the competitors walk into the arena saying to themselves, "Self, there's a really good chance we could die today." Any of you who think you could do that week after week, year after year, and be the very best at it four years running, go do it. Haul your fat ass away from the keyboard, go down to the track, climb in a car, and start trading paint with someone (even better, 42 someones) at 180 miles per hour or more. You wouldn't last two laps...and neither would I.
Are race-car drivers athletes? You're goddamn right they are, and anyone who's trying to argue otherwise has no fucking clue what the word athlete even means. Bravo to Mr. Jimmie.
And to all the people who have no problem honoring Serena the Mad, Smiter of Lineswomen, but can't acknowledge that Jimmie Johnson has done something they could never do, and done it better than anyone else in the free world for four years straight...you are all so retardedly clueless.