There’s a little magazine called Sports Illustrated. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I hear of it every time I’m forced to make small talk in social situations with non-horse people and someone asks what I do.
“Sports Illustrated?” they say.
And then I repeat myself “Horse Illustrated. Y’know. Horses.” And then I have to tell them that I can’t get them tickets to whatever basketball game they were just going to ask about.
Apparently there needs to be Horse Illustrated.
— Henry (@seminole4life22) December 14, 2015
Sports Illustrated does an annual award, previously known as Sportsman of the Year but as of last week titled “Sportsperson of the Year,” which honors “the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.” Subjective criteria, to be sure, made all the more hazy by pulling from any and all sports. How do you judge MMA fighters against baseball teams and Olympic swimmers? Usually you don’t, but SI takes on that task every year.
Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner American Pharoah was one of the 12 contenders for this year’s title. Thoroughbred racing fans were thrilled, and flooded the magazine’s online poll. Pharoah won the public poll handily, with a whopping 47% of the vote. Amid constant speculation that racing’s fanbase is dying off and the sport is falling from relevance, Pharoah’s fans rallied and showed their support for him in numbers that no other contender’s fans could do.
Racing fans should have been thrilled. They should have celebrated American Pharoah’s win in the reader poll and gotten on with their lives. But that’s not really how it went down.
After tennis great Serena Williams was announced as Sportsperson of the Year, many of Pharoah’s more vocal fans reacted negatively. This strongly worded open letter was shared by jockey Victor Espinoza on Facebook (although it’s not clear if he wrote it or if he just shared the sentiment behind it.)
Espinoza, by all accounts, is an all-around good guy, and obviously he feels quite passionately about this once-in-a-lifetime horse. So I get it. But the letter is pretty misleading, and it threw fuel on the fire. Unfortunately, some racing fans were expressing their displeasure with SI’s decision by posting angry comments that even went into the realm of sexism and racism pointed at Williams. There’s absolutely no excuse for that. Furthermore, Williams isn’t the one who chose herself as the winner, so if Pharoah’s fans really feel the need to direct their ire somewhere, it’s sort of pointless to pick her as the target.
Why Have a Poll at All?
A lot of fans are asking why Sports Illustrated had a poll at all if they weren’t going to use the results to determine the winner. As far as I can tell, the award has always been chosen by the editors. They never claimed it would be different this year. In fact, they were pretty clear about it. This is the opening paragraph of the article announcing the 12 contenders:
Have we ever seen a sporting year like 2015? From American Pharoah’s run to the Triple Crown to Ronda Rousey’s MMA dominance to Jordan Spieth’s taking aim at golf’s Grand Slam, it’s been a remarkable year in athletic achievement, one of the best ever. Below are the 12 leading contenders for 2015 Sportsman of the Year. Sports Illustrated’s editors will make its (very tough) selection next month, but we want our readers to have their say. Below, cast your vote for the person (or, in Pharoah’s case, superhorse) you think is the most worthy selection for Sportsman of the Year. Leading up to the announcement on Dec. 14, we’ll also be publishing a series of essays from our writers and peers of the 12 contenders that make the argument for each candidate.
They didn’t hide the fact that the poll was not a factor in determining the winner. I’m not surprised that people didn’t bother to read before voting, but I wish they had. I think if voters understood that this was just a poll, they would have been more apt to celebrate American Pharoah winning it rather than looking at it in the frame of a different title they think he should have won.
Is American Pharoah “Just a Horse”?
The letter posted by Espinoza implies that Sports Illustrated said they didn’t give Pharoah the title because he’s a horse, and it’s “Sportsperson of the Year.” Sports Illustrated never said that. They picked Williams based on her merits over nine other individual human athletes, one baseball team, and one horse. In fact, SI is the entity that named these 12 contenders in the first place, so in reality, they did honor Pharoah as a sportsperson in spite of his equinity.
The letter also states that SI “mock(s) and make(s) fun of horse racing fans and the sport itself.” There are certainly SI readers and other sports fans out there doing that. People are jerks sometimes. Here’s where I would link to a particularly juvenile SB Nation video that mocks horsepeople, but I don’t want to give it the traffic. Just know that SB Nation is not affiliated with SI.
Part of the reason I don’t think Espinoza is the writer of the open letter is because it is in opposition to the articulate and moving piece that he wrote for Sports Illustrated in support of Pharoah’s candidacy for the title. In that piece, Espinoza wrote, “I know he’s not human, but SI has always treated racing as a serious sport. And he deserves serious consideration.”
As for the claim that Sports Illustrated made comments about Pharoah being, “just a horse,” I can’t find anything to back that up (but please post a link in the comments if I’m wrong!) In fact, there are several compelling pro-American Pharoah pieces on si.com that honor him as a great athlete.
- SI Achievement of the Year 2015: American Pharoah
- American Pharoah a Runaway Choice in Readers’ Sportsman of the Year Poll
But That Cover…
Finally, a persistent criticism I’ve seen is that the Serena Williams photo on the cover of the magazine is inappropriate for honoring an athlete. I don’t disagree there. Look at past Sportsman of the Year covers, and they tend to portray the winners in uniform or in action. They’re at least wearing pants. It does seem like a pretty sexist decision on SI’s part, but it’s irrelevant to the American Pharoah discussion.
It’s Just a Title
If you think having Pharoah on the cover of SI would have brought in a new wave of fans to the sport of Thoroughbred racing, please think instead of how many people are turned away from it every time they see a hateful comment from a Pharoah supporter. Maybe remind your less-rational friends of this when they write inflammatory Facebook posts on the subject.
If American Pharoah had won the Sportsperson of the Year title, he would have then gone on to live a life of luxury as a stud. Instead, he will now…go on to live a life of luxury as a stud. If you feel your blood pressure start to rise when you think about him not winning this title, redirect your thoughts to that. Pharoah doesn’t care that he didn’t win. Neither should you.
Back to The Near Side
Leslie Potter is Sr. Associate Web Editor of HorseChannel.com. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieInLex.