Railing against another infusion of corporate sponsorship into a sport whose calendar includes the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and the Insight.com Bowl seems futile, but there's something particularly embarrassing about a Japanese automaker underwriting something so quintessentially American as the Heisman Trophy. � New York City's Downtown Athletic Club (DAC), sponsor of the 64-year-old Heisman, doesn't sound embarrassed about the $1.5 million it will get from American Suzuki over the next three years for being the Heisman's official sponsor. (As part or the agreement reached last week, Suzuki also signed a three-year, $35 million promotional deal with Time Warner, SI's parent company.) "We needed to develop revenue," said DAC executive director Rudy Riska, "and we had to market it in a way that it wouldn't taint the trophy." Lord, we wouldn't want to see the trophy tainted. Never mind that the 1968 Heisman, formerly the property of one Orenthal James Simpson, had to be sold at auction to help pay the $8.5 million wrongful death judgment against O.J., or that the '72 Heisman, won by Johnny Rodgers, ended up on the defense table in front of Rodgers during his 1987 trial for assault with a deadly weapon.
The Heisman is now practically all that keeps the DAC afloat—certainly all that keeps it relevant—so its search for financial assistance is understandable. But a couple of changes are in order. The DAC must stop handing out Heisman ballots as if they were gumballs. This season, as always, more than 800 media members, many of whom never see the candidates in live action, will decide the winner. 'rime din the old-boy network and give ballots only to those journalists who follow the sport week in and week out on a national basis, journalists who, heaven forbid, might determine that an offensive tackle or a linebacker is the best college player in the nation.
Most important, the DAC should line up some nonprofit benefactor—say the National Football Foundation—to underwrite the Heisman should the club be in no better financial shape when its three-year deal with Suzuki expires. Otherwise, next thing you know, somebody from the DAC will be standing up on a Saturday evening in December and proudly announcing the winner of the 7-Eleven Super Big Gulp Heisman Trophy.