- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

If ESPN has taught us anything beyond the use of "Boo-Yah" as both noun and verb it is that ours is a land of boundless opportunity.

Opportunity, in this case, being the chance to pant and slobber on national television.

With tonight's airing of its annual ESPY awards, the network once again will pay homage to the stars of sport. Among the nominees? Jerry the Big Air Dog, a long-jumping canine who is up for the coveted well, semi-coveted title of Best Outdoors Athlete.

And just to be clear: No, we're not making this up.

"I didn't know there was a dog," said Dave Kindred, an ESPY voter and a writer with the Sporting News. "[But] dogs do deserve honor. There should even be a separate category for them. They don't have much of a chance if they're in a category with Anna Kournikova or someone like that."

Maybe not. But given the astonishing proliferation of sports awards in recent years, it's only a matter of time before Jerry and the rest of his acrobatic ilk are given their proverbial due.

(Brought to us, no doubt, by Purina. Or maybe Alpo).

In fact, a quick survey of the athletic landscape reveals that the old locker room trope "Give the credit to them but give it to us, too" is more than a hackneyed cliche. It's the hackneyed truth.

From our All-American nose guards all 47 of them to our very best basketball players under 6 feet tall, we are swimming in superlatives. Drowning in certificates. Buried under an avalanche of chintzy statuettes. Consider:

•There are official awards for the top broadcaster in baseball, the best point guard in women's college basketball and the most outstanding athletes in the city of Boston.

•The NHL doles out 16 annual postseason honors, including the Lester B. Pearson Award (named after a former Canadian prime minister), the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (named after the wife of a former Canadian governor-general) and the Bud Light Plus-Minus Award (named after a non-Canadian beer).

•College football sports dozens of All-America squads preseason and postseason, academic and athletic, first, second and third team spanning three divisions of play and selected by venerable institutions like the Associated Press and Playboy magazine.

And that's without mentioning, er, honorable mentions. Or, for that matter, the Girls of the Big East.

"What's wrong with 18 different tight ends saying they were an All-American?" said Woody Paige, an ESPY voter and a Denver Post sports columnist. "With 37 more guys saying they were honorable mention?

"When they get jobs, they can say they were an All-American and it won't hurt them until they try to become a coach."

Award Glut

Of course, none of this is new. The ancient Greeks honored their Olympians with olive wreaths. The Heisman Trophy is 67 years old. College football All-America teams date back to the late 1880s.

At one point, a popular guide to the sport listed 35 separate squads. The year? 1909.

"I can probably find a team somewhere that once picked me as something," Paige said.

That said, sports awards are more ubiquitous than ever nearly as common as boxing titles. The NFL sports Pro Bowl players, an MVP and Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year. Tennis selects a Humanitarian of the Year. Bowling boasts a Hall of Fame.

In the NBA alone, there are Hall of Famers and the 50 Greatest. All-Stars and All-NBA'ers. Players of the Week and Players of the Month. MVPs of the regular season and MVPs of the finals.

The league also names a Coach of the Year, an All-Interview Team and a Sixth Man of the Year the latter honor presumably reserved for the best player not good enough to qualify for anything else.

"[Sports awards] have been growing slowly but surely since about 1950," said Chuck Korr, a sports historian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "But there's been this enormous rise in the past decade.

"And it's not just in America. In England, there's the Professional Footballer's Association. They have awards. Then the [soccer] writers have their banquets to give awards. And so on."

Indeed, it often seems that the number of available awards is limited only by the number of groups willing to hand them out. College basketball offers two national player of the year awards, one based in Los Angeles (the Wooden) and the other in Atlanta (the Naismith). The AP, Sporting News, U.S. Basketball Writers Association and National Association of Basketball Coaches all select All-America teams.

Of course, so does Dick Vitale.

In addition, the sport is littered with conference, tournament and regional honors, plus a bevy of hairsplitting individual awards most notably the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award (given to the best player under 6 feet tall) and the Pete Newell Big Man Award (not given to the best player under 6 feet tall).

"Sports are about producing a victory," said Nadine Gelberg, Executive Director of the Sports and Entertainment Practice of Harris Interactive, a polling firm that works with the Wooden Award. "Awards provide an opportunity to have more victors."

Just ask major league baseball, in which just about everyone save the occasional backup catcher and possibly the Kansas City Royals has a chance to win something.

Think Gold Gloves for fielders. Silver Sluggers for hitters. An Organization of the Year award for, well, guys who sit behind desks.

With more than a half-dozen interested parties doling out honors, redundancy is the norm:

•The Hank Aaron Award recognizes the league's "best overall hitter"; by contrast, the Ted Williams Award honors baseball's "most productive hitter," which isn't to be confused with the Ted Williams Award, given to the MVP of the All-Star Game.

•The Hutch Award and the Tony Conigliaro Award both are given to a player who embodies courage and fighting spirit.

•The sport offers three citizenship awards: the Branch Rickey Award, the Lou Gehrig Award and the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award.

•In a semantic twist sure to please John Kruk, the AP hands out both a Player of the Year and an Athlete of the Year award.

Just to cover all the bases particularly the fat, slow, stone-handed ones the AP also recognizes an Outstanding Designated Hitter.

"We do the same thing in the schools," Kindred said. "Those poor major leaguers that have to get by on $2.5 million a year instead of getting a hunk of metal. Their self-esteem must be flagging. We need to take care of those boys. Give everybody a trophy."

Leave that to ESPN. Since their inception in 1993, the ESPYs short for Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly have expanded at a rate to shame Al Roker's waistline. Not to mention the NHL.

The ESPYs now encompass 34 awards, ranging from Athlete of the Year to Best Sports Movie. Like the Oscars and the Grammys, the show even has spawned a Golden Globes-esque imitator the Laureus World Sports Awards, held in Monte Carlo and broadcast by NBC.

"I assume Fox Sports will start giving away awards soon," Paige said. "CNNSI probably would if they weren't off the air. And doesn't Sports Illustrated do a big oh, wait, I guess that's their Swimsuit Issue. I have seen the Swimsuit issue shoots on cable TV.

"Maybe that's what we need: a combination sports awards and Victoria's Secret fashion show."

Sponsor's Delight

Why the glut? The legion of awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Sporting Excellence?

The answer lies in the ESPY gift bag. Given to presenters and nominees, the big sack o' schwag includes a Disney DVD collection, a Siemens cell phone, Spy sunglasses, Lois Hill Jewelry and a PlayStation 2.

Like the show itself, every gift is fully sponsored.

"Why does anybody put anything on television?" Korr said. "To move a product. There's a one-to-one correlation between the growth of these awards and the marketing [of them]. It's a great marketing tool. It has nothing to do with sports."

For corporations like ESPY sponsors GMC and Morgan Stanley, sports awards are both cheaper and less risky than traditional athletic endorsements.

The equation is simple: While a star spokesperson like Randy Moss can flake out or have a bad season, award recipients are by definition always excellent.

Hence, Suzuki sponsors the Heisman Trophy. Baseball honors a Rolaids Relief Man.

The NBA crowns a "Got Milk?" Rookie of the Year, who invariably ends up sporting a sheepish milk mustache in a national magazine.

"If you own the award, you get the automatic press whenever anyone talks about it," Gelberg said. "And you're linked with the excellence of the people who have achieved it. It's a great opportunity."

ESPN couldn't agree more. Over the last year, the network has broadcast the NHL Awards, the MLB Players' Choice Awards and separate specials for college football and basketball.

The reason? Like game shows and reality TV, awards programs cost little to produce. They carry a built-in audience. And from the Essence Awards to the Tonys, they're a magnet for eyeball-attracting celebrities.

In fact, tonight's ESPYs featuring Tim Allen and Adam Sandler, among other, er, luminaries will be preceded by an hour-long "Live from the Red Carpet" special on the E! network.

Hosted by the I-can't-believe-I'm-not-unemployed duo of Joan and Melissa Rivers, the red carpet program is itself an honor the kind typically reserved for Oscar-aping productions like, say, the Daytime Emmys.

"The root cause of this is the need to fill airtime and what seems to be America's insatiable interest in celebrity," Korr said. "In that respect, it's an outgrowth of People magazine. What better way to attract viewership than to have an award show?"

That said, don't expect John Feinstein to tune in. Long before his acclaimed "A Season on the Brink" was turned into a memorably hideous made-for-ESPN movie, the author was asked to join something called the "ESPY Academy" a voting panel made up of athletes, journalists and Stuart Scott.

Feinstein refused.

"To me, the ESPYs from day one have been an ESPN tribute to itself," he said. "A look at us, our guys get to rub shoulders with Hollywood guys thing, no matter how dumb everyone looks in the process."

For Feinstein, the defining ESPY moment came during the inaugural broadcast, when Raquel Welch presented the award for College Basketball Player of the Year.

"She announced that the [winner] was Christine Lattener," he recalled with a laugh. "The list of actors who have just looked awkward and terrible is really quite remarkable."

Is it ever. Former ESPY hosts Norm MacDonald (1998) and Jeff Foxworthy (1997) have since fallen off the Hollywood map, while Tony Danza (1996) and John Goodman (1995) are sailing precipitously close to the edge.

Athletes risk similar embarrassment. Forced banter like a memorably unfunny exchange between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova is the norm. And sartorial missteps are all too common.

Michael Jordan normally one of the most stylish athletes on the planet attended the 2000 ESPYs in a black shirt/black tie/chrome jacket ensemble that looked less like a suit than a lunar jumpsuit.

"Athletes always look so uncomfortable at these events," Kindred said. "For instance, put Jennifer Capriati in a gauzy blue gown. She doesn't look right. And Jeff Gordon shouldn't be wearing a tuxedo. He should be wearing 900 patches, advertising oil."

Fashion disasters aside, Kindred said the rampant proliferation of sports awards has eroded their value. He's not alone in his assessment.

"If there are 100 awards, who can tell the difference between the two that matter and the 98 that don't?" Feinstein said. "That's one of the things that's so annoying about the ESPYs.

"They're totally meaningless, but because ESPN promotes them so ceaselessly and shamelessly, the way they promote everything, they actually have people convinced that they mean something."

Tell that to Pete Sampras. After accepting an ESPY last year for Record-Breaking Performance, the stoic tennis champ wept.

Paige even argues that sports awards are more legitimate now than they've ever been no matter how contrived or excessive they seem.

"With awards, it used to be, 'Who knew?'" he said. "When they started picking All-American football teams, those guys never saw anybody but Notre Dame and Army. But at least now, with all the cable networks, you can see people."

Not to mention big air dogs. A highlight of ESPN's 2001 Great Outdoors Games, Jerry's high-flying antics have been broadcast across the nation giving him a fair-and-square shot at the first canine ESPY.

Which, if nothing else, should make for a highly distinguished chew toy.

"I hope the dog wins," Feinstein said. "That would be appropriate. And his acceptance speech would probably be more articulate than most."

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