12/18/2015 1:18PM

Simon: American Pharoah was obvious choice for SI Sportsman of the Year

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Barbara D. Livingston
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was the clear winner in an online poll for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, but tennis player Serena Williams was chosen as the winner by the magazine's editors instead.

It was the year of American Pharoah. Anyone even casually knowledgeable about racing will look back at 2015 as the year racing shed decades of frustration for a number of moments of exultation through the racing talents of American Pharoah. He made an indelible imprint not only in racing, but he also crossed over to high name recognition with the mainstream public, with the television ratings for the races in which he competed reaching unprecedented heights compared to previous years.

So, clearly American Pharoah was worthy of such a title as sports figure of the year, sports individual of the year, sports newsmaker of the year, or any other such title. He was part of the American sporting conscience. Well, not so fast, said Sports Illustrated.

That venerable magazine has been naming a Sportsman of the Year since 1954, and it failed to give the award to American Pharoah this past week despite overwhelming support from fans. Before announcing the winner, Sports Illustrated conducted an online poll with 12 finalists, and American Pharoah was voted the clear winner, no mean feat for a sport that has struggled to gain a foothold with the general public and indicative of how transcendent of a sporting figure American Pharoah became in America. Sports Illustrated instead last Monday announced that tennis player Serena Williams was its Sportsperson of the Year, even though she was 11th in the vote of fans.

Shunning a horse is nothing new for Sports Illustrated. In 1973, Secretariat, who made the cover of both Time and Newsweek the year he won the Triple Crown, was not Sportsman of the Year, the magazine editors instead choosing auto-racing driver Jackie Stewart. In 1977, Seattle Slew did not win, but give SI some credit for picking apprentice jockey sensation Steve Cauthen as its Sportsman of the Year. In 1978, Affirmed lost out to golfer Jack Nicklaus.

The selection of Williams over American Pharoah outraged many racing and non-racing fans, and Sports Illustrated received a lot of backlash in social media.

So, what happened? How was American Pharoah not honored by the magazine?

Here were the 12 candidates whom Sports Illustrated considered, with some observations on each of their creditworthiness.

Simone Biles. Who?

Usain Bolt. His name must have been mistakenly left on the list from four years ago.

Steph Curry. Okay, he’s a legit candidate.

Thomas Davis. Any football player not named Tom Brady is ineligible. And I’ve never heard of Thomas Davis.

Novak Djokovic. His name is too hard to spell.

Carli Lloyd. I love women’s soccer, but not even I would vote for her over American Pharoah.

Lionel Messi. Really?

American Pharoah. This list is presented as Sports Illustrated presented it, so what’s odd here? That he was put between Messi and mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey. Clearly, this is an alphabetical list, according to SI’s editors, and his last name is Pharoah. We wish we had known that months ago so we didn’t have to fill up most of the headlines in Daily Racing Form with his real name. Now we learn we could have gotten by with Pharoah, like we do with Pletcher, Baffert, Castellano, and others. Perhaps the Sports Illustrated editors thought that if they put his name first on the list, where it belonged, he might have gotten too many votes – wait a second, he did anyway.

Ronda Rousey. This might be my selection just so she wouldn’t beat me up for not voting for her.

Kansas City Royals. They accomplished the near impossible for a small-city team, but it is Kansas City.

Jordan Spieth. Does anyone play golf anymore? I thought they were building 9-hole courses now to get people interested again.

Serena Williams. She failed to win the grand slam when heavily favored in the last leg.

So, exactly how was the decision made to make Williams Sportsperson of the Year over American Pharoah? We think this is how the discussion took place around the editors’ table.

“Forget the fans and readers,” said one editor. “What do they know anyway? We need to sell some magazines off the newsstand because ESPN the Magazine is eating our lunch. What’s the best cover we can publish to get people to pick this thing up? What kind of cover would American Pharoah, Steph Curry, and the Kansas City Royals make?”

“Well,” answered another editor, “we could get the entire Royals team to wear nothing but jockstraps while taking a team picture, but the players have scattered to all corners of the country already, and it would be too hard to get them all back together again so fast. And Kansas City doesn’t sell. They aren’t the New York Yankees.”

“Okay, what about Steph Curry?”

“He’s a possibility, but he won’t sell many magazines either. He plays on the West Coast, and no one watches those games. No one saw him play till the NBA finals.”

“All right, what about American Pharoah?”

“We contacted his connections, and they say he has too much dignity to sprawl on some bales of straw in the breeding shed as if he’s waiting for some mares. The best we could do is a close-up of him in his paddock eating a carrot.”

“None of those sound like newsstand winners. What are our other choices?”

“Well, what about Serena Williams?”

“What about her? You mean the person who was next to last in the voting?”

“Yeah, but maybe we can get her to pose provocatively on a gold throne, wearing a black lace top and black nylons, her legs stretched over the arms of the chair and having a come-hither look. I think our readers would like that. We need something between now and February, when the swimsuit issue comes out.”

“Great idea. She’s the winner if she’ll do that.”