The Heisman Trophy is silly because it takes itself so seriously
From the voting to the show itself, college football's top award could be handled better
It's time for the Heisman Trophy's self-righteous tradition of informing us of how really, really, really important it is.
My advice to survive the Heisman overload is simple: Don't take this award as seriously as it takes itself. Once you accept it's a cool trophy and nice honor for (fill-in-the-blank quarterback/running back), and not a cure for world peace, the Heisman becomes tolerable and even amusing.
What other award in sports gets an entire show to itself? Thankfully, ESPN appears to have reduced Saturday's broadcast to 60 minutes from the 90-minute monstrosity of 2015. If you wonder why 60 minutes are needed to say, "Lamar Jackson," you must hate America, apple pie and puppies.
After all, this is a sacred award that goes to "the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity." What does that even mean?
Jackson, who has had a terrific season until stumbling in his final two games, seems like a nice guy. I don't know whether or not he has integrity. Should he and other candidates go through an integrity test to see if they will accept the Heisman or cash? Now that's an awards show I would watch.
The Heisman show is a walking, talking commercialized product built on highlighting unpaid college players. You could say, "Lamar Jackson wins," in three seconds and the news value of the broadcast would be complete. But that wouldn't pay for the ads.
This is the award that made one Southern California running back (Reggie Bush) return his Heisman for the sin of getting paid in college. Another USC legend (O.J. Simpson) remains recognized as a Heisman winner despite the world believing he sinned by murdering two people.
The Heisman does have its benefits. Dozens of charities receive money from the Heisman Trust, which administers the award. The winning speeches are heartfelt and often tearful. The winners get treated like college football royalty -- their name and the Heisman forever linked, even in obituaries, as we tragically saw this week following the death of 1994 Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam.
So yes, there are far worse things in college sports and life than the Heisman. It's just so hard to resist poking fun at this stiff-arm trophy that stiffs so many candidates and takes itself so seriously. If only the Heisman laughed at itself like Michigan's Garrett Moores did in his hilarious acceptance speech for winning Holder of the Year.
The candidacy of Michigan's Jabrill Peppers this season reflects how flawed the Heisman voting is for defensive players. Peppers is a top-five finalist who will be in New York on Saturday. He's a terrific athlete, a valuable and versatile player, and not close to being the best defensive player in college football this season -- or perhaps even on his own team.
Pro Football Focus (PFF), which carefully uses film to evaluate college players, didn't name Peppers a first- or second-team All-American on defense this season. He made it as a punt returner, and even that was dubious since he ranks fifth in punt return average. In some games, Peppers didn't even have PFF's five highest grades on the Michigan defense.
"While his elite athleticism and ability as a returner [are] blindingly apparent every time he steps on the field, his play on the back end has been less than stellar," PFF wrote last week. "When targeted in coverage this season, he has yielded receptions on 20 of 26 targets and does not have a single pass defended when he is the primary defender. ... He also lacks the size to consistently take on and shed blocks going forward, as the majority of his impact plays this year have come when he has been unblocked."
Meanwhile, Heisman voters left national defensive player of the year Jonathan Allen home for the sin of ... well, what exactly? Too many good Alabama defensive players to pick one? No wildcat snaps and punt returns? Only two touchdowns compared to Peppers' four? Not enough integrity?
Allen, not Peppers, produced a so-called "Heisman Moment" with his Superman sack by diving over a Texas A&M offensive lineman to reach the quarterback. To refresh, a "Heisman Moment" occurs when voters, who can't possibly see most candidates play every down, witness a great play in an important game and superficially tell themselves, "Ah, that guy's worth voting for!" Yet voters still didn't do that with Allen, who is the best player on the best team in the country.
PFF rated Allen's pass rushing productivity third among 3-4 defensive ends in college this year and his run stop percentage ranked second at his position. But in an era of spread offenses and scoring, who needs a defensive lineman who can rush the passer and stop the run, right?
Full disclosure: I used to be a Heisman voter many years ago, back when Larry Fitzgerald got stiffed for Jason White. I haven't voted for about a decade. My ballot disappeared once I moved from South Carolina to Alabama, and it's perfectly fine. College football is a little more fun when you're not wondering if the Heisman Police might take your vote away.
The Heisman would be easier to digest if it didn't treat the voting process so secretively like it's the Oscars. You would think Russia was trying to influence our Heisman election.
The Heisman never learned a cardinal lesson in entertainment: The more seriously you take yourself, the more you get mocked. It's why LeBron James was vilified for "The Decision" with his over-the-top TV announcement to take his talents to South Beach, and why he was praised for returning to Cleveland through a letter.
Starting in 2013, the Heisman forced voters to pledge they would not reveal their picks in advance. Before that, some websites were able to tally enough people's votes to correctly identify in advance the winner, presumably rendering the ceremony meaningless for fans to watch.
About 50 voters got letters in 2013 from the Heisman admonishing them for revealing their ballots. Reporters' columns were highlighted with a yellow marker as if voters had cheated in class. The voters were told if they didn't agree to hide their Heisman ballots, voting privileges would be up for review. Some voters, like CBS Sports colleague Dennis Dodd, willingly gave up their votes rather than agree to those terms.
A funny thing happened since 2013: Heisman TV ratings plummeted. According to Sports Media Watch, the overnight ratings for the Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota shows past two years each drew a 2.0. That was down from Jameis Winston in 2013 (2.7 rating), Johnny Manziel in 2012 (3.1), Robert Griffin III in 2011 (2.9), Cam Newton in 2010 (2.4) and Mark Ingram in 2009 (3.6).
(By the way, a 2.0 is still better viewership than almost any early-December basketball game ESPN could air on a Saturday night during Christmas party season.)
Imagine that. Ratings drop without free publicity from media members explaining their ballots during Heisman week.
The Heisman process now involves writers and broadcasters cryptically saying things about candidates, while stressing they absolutely, positively cannot tell their audience who they think should win. Brace yourself for the barrage of "Here's my Heisman ballot" stories at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday.
It's all so silly -- the Heisman preseason odds, the horse race of who is leading each week, the extent schools analyze their campaigns, the lack of defensive players who get considered, and the stringent voting rules.
Then again, the Heisman has always been silly because it's so serious. Once you don't take the Heisman seriously -- once it's just a cool trophy and a humbling moment for a sometimes-deserving winner -- the joke becomes so much funnier.
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