Somebody is making a fantastic error in judgment. Now, who do you suppose it is—General Motors or the Buffalo Bills? GM has decided that a few minutes of O.J. Simpson chatting about cars on TV this fall is worth $250,000, but the Bills think O.J. has no right asking $650,000 to play football full time for several years. Well, I appreciate that General Motors has more money than the Buffalo Bills and I also realize that it is easy for me to spend somebody else's money. Nevertheless, I think Simpson is a steal at double the price he is asking—which would be, incidentally, about what Lew Alcindor got, and I think he came cheap too. Wait till you see what Pete Maravich commands next year.
The reason O.J. should get a bundle is simple. Most sports today are suffering from a dearth of genuine heroes, those magnetic personalities who by themselves attract crowds, increase ratings and create sustained, widespread interest in their sport. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, and while we're at it—Sandy Koufax, Jim Brown and Mickey Mantle. History shows us the most successful ages in sport are not distinguished by events but by individuals. The '20s were memorable because of Ruth, Dempsey, Tilden and Bobby Jones, not because of the events they won.
The need for new heroes is greater than ever now that the seasons are longer. Until the championship games at the end, interest in any sport relates absolutely to the quality and quantity of its heroes. That is, its superstars—an overworked word that must do.
Talent is only the first part of being a superstar. Beyond that, to deserve the title a player must establish a notoriety and an impact that can be turned into box office. The Halls of Fame are full of guys who lacked star quality, whereas Alcindor is already an NBA superstar even though he has never played a game; Oscar Robertson is a great player but he is no superstar. Neither is Hank Aaron nor Billy Casper nor Bart Starr, Stan Mikita, Rod Laver, Lance Alworth, Juan Marichal, Pete Rose, Don Meredith, Nate Thurmond, Rod Gilbert or Leroy Kelly.
In fact there are few genuine superstars, or Impact Champions, as they should be called, to differentiate them from the expert journeymen. Consider, for instance, just how little bait Pete Rozelle has as he goes about trying to sign TV contracts for pro football. He has Joe Namath with an Achilles knee as his only certified Impact Champion. He has Johnny Unitas and Gale Sayers coming off the ropes. And maybe he has Simpson. In terms of multiyear millions-of-dollar contracts, $650,000 really does look like a bargain.
Sports generally are so desperate for personalities with instant recognition that now they are even trying to create interest in sedentary middle management. The literal answer, after all, to where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, is that he has gone to display himself on the coaching lines. But there is no evidence to indicate that this is helping the Oakland A's box office. Similarly, once the initial burst of curiosity is satisfied, it is just as doubtful how long Washington fans will be content to pay money to see Ted Williams and Vince Lombardi exhort their faceless performers. Students of human nature will also be in for a setback if throngs of Cincinnatians show up to watch Bob Cousy sitting on the bench.
At the same time that sports make a fuss over star-managers they let competing businessmen pirate some of the greatest talents they have nurtured. Two of the most stylish Impact Champions in history, Brown and Koufax, left for movies and broadcasting. And why not? Other entertainments pay more realistically than sport for services rendered.
Sport offers too much tribute to the peripheral contributions of the supernumeraries at the expense of the great stars who really make it. Writers and commentators (must they be "color men?") wallow in mechanical expertise. It is always shrewd planning, gears meshing, wonderful organization. Perhaps it only reflects our anonymous lives, but it is forever the battle plan that is celebrated, not the classic individual achievement.
So, submerged by spear-carriers, obfuscated by game plans, programmed by celebrity coaches, the potential hero disappears into the background, the vitality and value he could bring to a sport forgotten.