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Scott Ostler

Sportsperson of the Year? Well, It's an Odd Couple, Actually

December 10, 1987|Scott Ostler

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the big moment: The announcement of this column's sportsperson of the year.

The method of selection was secret ballot. In keeping with the cornerstone philosophy of democracy--one man, one vote--the selection committee consisted of one man, with one vote. Me.

The envelope, please. Thank you. Rip.

The winner . . . Oh, I see we have co-winners this time. The winners are . . . (dramatic pause) . . . in alphabetical order, Al Campanis and Bo Jackson!

Our winners are not here to accept their awards. So let's talk about them.

This year's field was tough. You had Magic, Martina (nice year for Steffi, but Wimbledon is the World Series), Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray, Gretzky, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Andre Dawson, Dennis Conner . . .

Still, the selection was easy. Based on what? Well, the criteria are somewhat vague for this annual award, presented here for the first time. But it's basically based on impact.

What did the candidates do? How much dust did they stir up? How much positive impact did they have on the world of sport?

It was almost automatic: Al and Bo.

What Campanis did and said didn't have any positive impact on himself, of course. Quite the contrary.

And some will see this as another opportunity to take a cheap shot at the former Dodger general manager. Not so.

What Campanis did, unintentionally, was kick baseball in its white butt and jar it out of its ignorance and apathy toward the hiring of blacks for management positions.

A thousand apologists have tried to explain that Campanis was caught in a bad moment, that his awkward speech on "Nightline" was innocent rambling and bumbling, misconstrued.

Nonsense. Campanis spoke eloquently. He spoke not for himself, but for all of baseball and its ingrained, paternal, well-intentioned racism.

He represented baseball's warm and friendly brick wall.

Al took the fall, but all of baseball shared his embarrassment, and so did the media. To think we daring crusaders of the keyboards and cameras needed an elderly executive, confused by lights and cameras, to inspire us into campaigning for a little fairness in the national pastime.

However slowly, the wheels are now in motion. Campanis' old club recently hired a black executive. Did the Dodgers do so to begin making up for decades of subtle discrimination in baseball? If so, who better?

Campanis started a lot of people thinking, and acting. He had impact.

So did our other honoree, Bo Jackson. Just ask Brian Bosworth, if the ringing in Boz's ears has subsided since his collision with Bo at the two-yard line in Seattle a couple of weeks ago.

First of all, let's give Jackson credit for even trying to play football this year. The baseball season is a long, wearing grind, even if you finish the season sitting on the bench. And Bo probably wasn't desperate for money.

He signed with the Raiders out of a sense of adventure and challenge. Or so I assume.

He was roundly criticized by his baseball teammates and home fans, and he took enormous heat from football people and the media for his innocent "hobby" remark. Even his Raider reception was frosty. Who does this kid think he is?

But Jackson never hesitated. In becoming an overnight football superstar, he not only explored new dimensions in durability and versatility, he shut up a lot of critics.

He made it look easy, but consider the risk. What if he had come to Los Angeles and been what many of us expected him to be--nervous, unsure, ill-prepared, out of shape, intimidated by opponents and big-city hype, a late-starting rookie burdened by too many expectations.

His year would have been a disaster. He would have performed the difficult and painful double floppo.

Instead, he came in like a gift from heaven, or wherever Al Davis' magical farm team is located.

When was the last time a football player so thoroughly and immediately inspired an entire team and its fans?

Jackson's presence turned a lame-duck quarterback into all-world, turned a patchwork offensive line into the Sons of the Electric Company. The defense perked up. With Bo around, even the Raiderettes looked better.

It's more than the way he played football that makes Bo a worthy recipient of this tremendous honor. It's the way he took on a challenge.

To have made a similar impact, Sugar Ray Leonard would have had to come out of retirement and knock out Mike Tyson, after scoring a few goals in the National Hockey League.

Anyway, Al and Bo, your handsome trophies would be shipped to you immediately, if they existed, which they don't. This is a new awards program, and I'm still working out the bugs.

Still, consider yourselves enshrined. Congratulations.

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