Wandering Eye:

On the Serena-vs.-American Pharoah controversy

People on social media always need something to argue about, and yesterday a line was drawn in the sand over Sports Illustrated's release of its Sportsperson of the Year award. This year's honor went to tennis great Serena Williams, the first individual woman to win since track star Mary Decker in 1983. On its face, Williams' win seems pretty non-controversial: She won three of the four tennis Grand Slams and carried an utterly dominant record of 53-3 in 2015.

In her interview with the magazine, Williams said her greatest moment came, not in these major victories, but in her return to a tournament at Indian Wells, California, site of a 2001 incident where Williams reported hearing racial slurs shouted from the crowd. She said her participation was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

"I had been a teenager at Indian Wells, and that was hard for me to go through—especially when I was thinking, It's 2001, I [shouldn't] have to deal with that stuff as much anymore," she said. "Now fast-forward to 2015, and we still have young black men being killed. Someone needed to do something. And I thought then that there was something greater than me and tennis. I needed to go back there and speak out against racism."

Certainly the mark of a good sport. But Williams' selection did elicit outcry from horse racing fans campaigning for American Pharoah, the sport of kings' first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. AP went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, an elite big-money race first run in 1984, thus becoming the first horse to sweep the four biggest races in a calendar year. A key plank in their argument: The horse ran away with a Sports Illustrated readers' poll asking who the winner should be, capturing 47 percent of the overall vote. Williams, by comparison, got 1 percent.

Perhaps jockey Victor Espinoza best summed up the anger of fans on his Facebook page: "Dear Sports Illustrated, Why did you bother to have a contest & hold voting for 'sportsperson of the year' when you were going to give it to whoever you wanted anyway? The fans spoke & American Pharoah won. Your giving the award to someone else (who got only 1% of the vote) is completely UNFAIR." (UPDATE: Espinoza just posted a longer note on his page.)

Given that so much of this discourse took place on the troll factory that is the internet, plenty mocked the idea that people would be campaigning in earnest for a horse over an actual person. Many saw the complaints as racially motivated.

Let's avoid that minefield and think for a second: Who would be benefiting from such a controversy? Why yes, that would be Sports Illustrated. As one of the videos trolling Pharoah supporters rightly points out, a readers' poll such as the one run by SI is designed for one thing—to get clicks. SI editors are the ones who put an equine up against a bunch of humans, even when the award clearly has "person" in the title. There are plenty of human connections to American Pharoah—Espinoza, trainer Bob Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat, his son Justin—who could have been nominated. They were all essential parts of a story that, as the poll demonstrates, captured the hearts of many. Maybe SI should have used one of them, since they fit one of the basic-yet-essential requirements of the award: being a person. Instead, we're left with this distasteful bickering.

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