Athletes who gave deserve an award

December 25, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Sports Illustrated has named New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady its Sportsman of the Year, while The Sporting News has given its version of the award to Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart.

Respectable choices, both of them. But there was a much bigger story in the sports world in 2005 than the success of those players and their teams combined, one that transcended sports while connecting it to the reality of American lives at the same time.

That story - the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast last summer - created another set of candidates for the honor of Sportsmen (and Sportswomen) of the Year. In fact, these candidates define what sportsmanship is all about, and illuminate the ideals of sports better than anyone in a long time.

The generosity of this country's big-name athletes - with their time, money, resources and spirit - was the best thing that happened in sports in 2005, and might have been the best news to come out of the worst news story this year. They deserve recognition, congratulations and thanks, and on Christmas, in this space, they'll get it.

To Sports Illustrated's credit, the magazine did acknowledge those athletes in their special issue earlier this month. And to its credit, it has honored those who give back with the award before (1987, "Athletes Who Care"). The Sporting News has done the same in recent years, compiling annual lists of athletes who impact society in bigger ways than their play.

Besides, who can argue with Brady as an example of what so many others have not been: an unselfish leader, a good teammate, an admittedly flawed human being who strives to be better for himself and others?

Who can argue? Well ...

Hundreds, if not thousands, of pro and college athletes across the sports spectrum reacted immediately and passionately to the wreckage wrought first by Katrina, then by Rita. Even the most reprehensible among them, the ones endlessly derided for their self-absorption and anti-social behavior - the Terrell Owens, the Ron Artests, the Kobe Bryants - gave generously.

From the beginning, all-star lineups of athletes waded into the midst of the horror to transmit hope any way they could, and dug down deep to send as much aid as possible. They loaded up trucks full of supplies. They transported them to the Gulf Coast themselves and handed them out. They passed the hat in their locker rooms and challenged each other, their fellow players, their teams and their leagues to match.

They hastily arranged fund-raisers - and, in some cases, shamed their bosses into doing so. Give the NFL a hand for putting together the telethon early in the season, but give the players a bigger hand for lining up to man the phones, and for making the NFL's pittance of a $1 million donation to hurricane relief seem as lame as it was, considering the collection of publicly-subsidized billionaires from which it came.

Politicians and appointees procrastinated, bickered and pointed fingers, and cost people their lives and possessions. But ballplayers - the overpaid, overbearing, over-inflated jocks who appear so detached from reality - walked through the shelters, slogged through the floodwaters, shook hands, signed autographs, clasped shoulders, hugged the desperate, stranded people.

The men and women charged with doing this on an official basis could have taken notes on how it was supposed to be done.

Listing the athletes who pitched in would surely shortchange someone by leaving him or her out. The Ravens players, though, are a good local example, after having started their own fund-raising drive that topped $1 million by the time the franchise, owners and fans had followed their lead.

"We have a lot, so we're able to give a lot," Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said. "Once the idea got started, we all were ready to give. It grew fast.

"But it's not something we go around looking for attention for," Ogden added. "We do it because we can."

That wasn't the only motivation.

"A lot of us saw what the people were going through and said, `That could be us,' " said fullback Alan Ricard, a Louisiana native who went back last week to the area in which he grew up for the first time since Katrina struck. Ricard (who is on injured reserve), fellow Louisianian Ed Reed and Deion Sanders were the front men for the players' contribution.

"We are all blessed to be here and to have what we have," Ricard continued. "So when you are blessed, you go out to bless others. And the thing about that is, blessings come back around to you."

If nothing else, a little gratitude should come their way on this day. For acting like the real sportsmen of the year, they at least deserve that.

Points after -- David Steele

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