Charismatic athletes have pull on public

August 04, 1991|By Bob Rubin | Bob Rubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

What it says about us can be debated, but there's no question sports figures have a special hold on the American public. A recent example was the way members of the Bush administration, including the Bushmeister himself, babbled like schoolboys in the presence of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio aboard Air Force One on the ride to the All-Star Game in Toronto.

Here were the nation's true heavy hitters lining up for autographs from two septuagenarians whose most notable achievements occurred a half-century ago, and in a kid's game. Before the flight, Bush stood next to DiMaggio and Williams in the Rose Garden and linked their names to another recent visitor, Queen Elizabeth. The former first baseman from Yale called the two aging ex-players "royalty."

This week's Sporting News cover story dealt with the phenomenon of jock appeal (and our love affair with lists) by ranking the five most charismatic people active in sports. They were selected by a four-member panel that included a beauty pageant producer, a TV marketing expert, the director of an agency that books advertisements and public appearances for sports celebrities, and actress Dyan Cannon.

Using the dictionary definition of charisma -- "a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires allegiance and devotion" -- the panel selected, in order, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bo Jackson, Wayne Gretzky and John Madden.

Hard to argue.

Some observations:

Michael edged Magic by one point in the weighted voting, with the other three well behind. That's not surprising. M&M combine spectacular skills with winning personalities as the dominant stars of a booming sport.

Bo Jackson's place is based on his flair for the dramatic and unique two-sport ability, plus the appeal of those clever Nike ads. It is not based as much on his personality, which can be truculent.

Given the relative lack of popularity of hockey (Bush didn't even recognize Mario Lemieux at a Rose Garden ceremony honoring the Stanley Cup champion Penguins), Gretzky's place among the elite might be most impressive. He transcends his sport. In contrast, though pro football is our most popular sport, the panel's pick as the NFL's most charismatic figure, Joe Montana, finished sixth. Away from the field, Montana is dull, at least for a public figure.

Madden's continued presence is a tribute to his staying power, given the length of time he has been around and the amount of exposure he receives. Joe Sixpack identifies with a fat, homely guy who talks with his hands.

The fact that black men finished 1-2-3 is encouraging. Here is at least one area where racism doesn't seem to be a factor.

Out of 17 to get votes, only one was a woman, golfer Nancy Lopez. Sexism seems to be a factor (but keep an eye on Jennifer Capriati).

The nice thing about rankings and lists is that you can agree, disagree or make up your own. For example, I could make a case for Nolan Ryan and George Foreman as calendar-defying candidates for the top five.

I was going to make a bottom five, sports figures the public loves to hate, but, to my surprise, could only come up with four -- Don King, Bill Laimbeer, Jerry Glanville and the up-and-coming Rob Dibble. There are many love/hate figures around, such as Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry, Charles Barkley, Dick Vitale, Bo Schembechler, Bob Knight, Jerry Tarkanian, Pete Rose, Mike Tyson and Carl Lewis, but few indisputable villains.

Age and fatherhood have made John McEnroe a sympathetic figure, and Andre Agassi, who looked like a worthy successor, is showing latent signs of being a human being. Pshaw. What a bland era. Where are the Gastineaus, Steinbrenners, Cosells, Bosworths, Doblers and Finleys of yore?

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