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Friday, April 14, 2006

The Heisman trophy -- proclaimed by itself and everyone else to be the most prestigious individual award in American sports -- has a dirty little secret: it sucks. Thrall to its diverse and more-than-slightly befuddled voting constituency, more often than not the Heisman goes to a default candidate chosen more for his circumstances than his magnificence. Some months later he usually loses a bowl game; some months after that he's drafted in the seventh round. He goes on to have a nondescript Arena League career and marries a girl who could probably be a model -- but not a Victoria's Secret one.

For every Barry Sanders there is a Ron Dayne; for every probably-worthy QB winner like Matt Leinart there are a half dozen noodle-armed system quarterbacks who shouldn't be let within 20 feet of the trophy: Detmer, Ware, Toretta, Weinke, etc. What does it say about an award when you can construct an clever list of ten rules that reduce the field to a half-dozen possibilities before the season starts? It says that you're eliminating 99% of everyone in college football before the first game. And it says that maybe this voting thing isn't working out so well.

We're in good hands here, people.
We're all in agreement as to who should not receive the trophy: losers. More difficult is determining who should get the damn thing, but as I always say, when dealing with matters of superiority and inferiority, Nietzsche is your man. Except I never say that.

(A note for actual philosophy-people: what follows is going to be a very pop understanding of Nietzsche because the popular concepts associated with Nietzsche fit better with what I'm driving at than the actual complicated bits, which I haven't attempted to intepret correctly anyway. A pre-emptive apology for spreading ign'ance.)

So. WWND? First, grow an amazing mustache. Second, take the problem at hand -- who is the best football player -- and attempt to mesh it with his understanding of human nature:
[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body... will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.
Faced with a game of stark military aggression, Nietzsche would probably see two kinds of players: those who respond out of fear and those who impose their will on things. Meatheads call the latter "swagger." Nietzche would see masters and slaves. The giant guy in the burnt orange loping through the secondary? Master. We're looking for masters, looking for those whose understanding of the game comes from a knowledge of what they can do instead of what they fear their opponents can. We're looking for those who transcend: ubermensch. Overman.

Whereas it was Nietzsche's overman who "balances over an empty space," from the perspective of the ardent college football fan it is we who teeter over an abyss of the unknown, emotional well-being on the knife's edge, waiting for someone to rise up and push us forward... or back. As anyone who's spent too much time with Sid Meier knows, Nietzche accidentally stumbled across a gorgeous description for the sort of sporting event that you realize is far too important to you:
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman--a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.
The fan is simultaneously tied and carried by "those who cross over," looking down, looking across, eyeing the opposing forces. We cling to the handholds afforded by our captor-champions, and watch as a battle -- our battle -- unfolds on a bridge of rope.

The ideal Heisman candidate is frightening to behold unless he is on your side, in which case he is your flagbearer and protector. The ideal candidate is a force of nature that rolls through his opposition against tremendous odds. His name is graven on the tombstone of instant replay's creator as a justification. He is not sunnily efficient, or competent, or a great fat beast who crushes only the weak. He is slightly terrifying. There is a small but real possibility that he is the escaped prototype of a CIA-developed breed of unkillable soldiers; he is not man; he is overman.

Items Of Interest

  • ubermenschliche. that's a German adverb for "superhuman" that I'm appropriating as a noun in this context. What are ubermenschliche? Plays that etch themselves into college football history for sheer amazement value; plays that seem like magic we can't understand. At their best, these are exertions of one player's will on all those around them: Howard's Heisman-pose-generating return; Roy Williams's flying squirrel attack; Leinart's forth-and-nine fade. The Heisman voters usually do get this right by focusing on the plays in a season which seem like pure exertions of will, but the emphasis on them here will be even greater. Anyone who picks up the shattered pieces of a season and fuses the shards back together will have a leg up.
  • Bowl Games. The Heisman's given out before the bowls occur, probably due to college football's odd, longstanding opinion that bowl games were cute exhibitions or something. Bowl statistics didn't even count towards records until very recently. Obviously the voters can't take bowls into account unless they have a time machine, but some Heisman trophies are obsolete by January 1st. It would be silly for a retrospective look to ignore some of the greatest performances in college football history.
  • In the same vein: The last couple games of the regular season. For some reason Heisman voters are allowed to submit ballots before the end of the regular season. Some take advantage of this opportunity every year. This enterprise, er, doesn't.
  • (Some) NFL performance. the Heisman is a college award and shouldn't go to whoever gets drafted #1 in a particular year, but the NFL performance of a particular player can help confirm or disconfirm the talents of certain players who play at small schools or amongst a horde of other stars that may camouflage their weaknesses. Note that players not ticketed for NFL success -- option quarterbacks, 5'9" wide receivers, guys playing on six knee surgeries -- are not punished for their circumstances.

Items Of Disinterest

  • Damned numbers. Right, right, I'm Mr. Computer Man with the charts and tables and stuff, but all of those things apply to teams. Attempting to divine which player's overall performance was superior because of a touchdown here or two hundred yards racked up against Ball State is impossible.
  • Quarterbacks and running backs. Not prejudicially, mind you, but it's ridiculous that since 1935 only five players (Larry Kelley, Leon Hart, Tim Brown, Desmond Howard, and Charles Woodson) who haven't played the aforementioned positions have happened to be the best players in the country. That's wrong.
  • Who you play for. Obviously quality of opposition matters, and it's hard to pick up ubermenschliche credit if you're not playing in important games, but we judge on the content of talent, not color of helmet.
  • Eligibility. If you're a freshman and the best player in the country, it's your award.
  • Career achievements. even if you've been good for the past three years, no one cares.
First Up: the most personally grating Heisman to Michigan fans in the past ten or so years: 1999. Ron Dayne won it largely for griding Montana A&M State under his heel but never beat or even cracked 100 against Michigan in his entire career. Nominate candidates in the comments.

Some background: 1999 season review. And a preview. And some other stuff.