Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Let's Hear It for the Big Men of Sports

No one person is bigger than the sport? Nonsense. What about Tiger Woods or Roger Federer? And world-record smasher Michael Phelps is not only bigger than swimming, he may be bigger than the Olympics.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Of course, for many fans, baseball is no longer the American pastime. Outstanding athletes from other sports have become household names. Commentator Frank Deford says some of them are larger than the games they play.

FRANK DEFORD: There have, once again, been serious soccer disturbances in Europe. In such disparate societies as England, Spain and Greece, the hooligans have been about their awful antics again. That sort of thing so rarely happens here in the United States. And really, I don't think it is the nature of the sport on the field, soccer, which so regularly prompts this violence abroad. Instead, I believe it is soccer's primacy.

Oh, to be sure, in some countries there are other team sports which attract some passing popularity - cricket, ice hockey, rugby, basketball here and there - but soccer is inevitably the be-all.

In the United States, though, as passionate as we may be about our teams, the interest is divided. Your pro football team loses, okay, here comes basketball, baseball, hockey. As antithetical as college sports are to education, they add to the athletic attention deficit. We never devote ourselves too much to one team, let alone to one sport.

We always boast in the United States about how we find strength in diversity. Well, add the strength of diversity of our popular sports to that mix. Aha! But if there is no one sport that rules our emotions, conversely it's easier now for one dominant figure to bestride any particular sport.

When Robert Woolmer, the Pakistani cricket coach, was murdered at the World Cup, cricket people quickly lifted the cry that the games must go on, that no one person is bigger than the sport. How often do we hear that august refrain? And of course it's utter garbage. Hey, you the man.

Tiger Woods, for example, is much bigger than golf. It didn't matter whether he won or lost the Masters this past week because it was his tournament before it started. Nobody won; he lost. At the water cooler what do people say during a golf tournament? Who's ahead? No - what's Tiger doing? If Woods doesn't play in a tournament, it isn't just a tree falling that nobody hears, it's the whole links' forest silently collapsing.

A PGA Tournament in Colorado, the International, folded because Tiger wouldn't put it on his schedule. It was replaced by a tournament that will be played in suburban Washington that will - guess what - have Mr. Woods serving as the tournament's host. His charity is the tournament's beneficiary. Roger Federer has reached the same state in tennis.

And now, quick, name two current swimmers. No, no, Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams have left the pool. Swimming is hardly an A-list sport, but if you could name one swimmer, it would surely be Michael Phelps, who sets the world record most times he splashes. The kid from Baltimore won seven gold medals at the world championships in Melbourne and should have won eight, but a teammate botched the relay. Next year, he'll be going after Mark Spitz's record of seven Olympic golds. Bigger than swimming, the Phelps fuss is only going to get gustier as the games approach.

Unless some hero comes out of the woodwork in track and field, Michael Phelps will go to Beijing bigger than all of NBC's Olympics. Not even Tiger can top that.

MONTAGNE: Frank Deford is senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford