Monday, August 18, 2008

Jemele Hill Is Not the Michael Phelps of Columnists

Phelps' eight gold medals makes us rethink greatness

This is long enough, let’s just jump right in.

What's an athlete?

One who competes in an exercise activity or sport at some level above terrible. I’m an athlete.
Just to warn you, I’m about to waste a lot of both of our time parsing this bullshit column. I should probably just avoid it.

Who's an athlete?

Like hundreds of millions of people.

What's mental toughness?

I’ll loosely define mental toughness as the ability to sustain focus and execute at a high level in the face if adversity and/or pressure. What’s with the fucking quiz to start the column?

What are limits?

I’ll defer to your nearest fifth grader to define limits.

What is greatness?

Well I'm tired already. What is a moronic way to open a column?

Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories in a row. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points. The Tiger Slam.

Yes? Those are “great” things in the context of athletic achievement.

We thought we knew those answers before Michael Phelps. But now that we've witnessed Phelps win eight gold medals, it turns out we didn't know anything.

Fuck that, I’m wicked smart. I know lots of stuff. You don’t know anything, but I already knew that. You’re just catching up with me Jemele.

Forget your previous notions. Forget other things you've seen from the other world's best athletes. What Phelps has done is as remarkably different as God giving us the sun one day and the seas the next.

I’m getting down right giddy about how she’s going to explain why 8 Gold Medals from Michael Phelps is more impressive than Lance Armstrong winning 7 straight Tours after beating cancer.

Because it’s not. At least not in any clear way.

But his greatest achievement at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing isn't the gold medals, or breaking Mark Spitz's 1972 record for most golds at a single Games. Phelps has changed the way we think about sport.

Yeah, he’s made me say: “What the fuck, there are a ton of chances to win medals if you’re a swimmer!” If you are the very best female gymnast in the world, and you dominate every apparatus and have very good teammates, you can have a flawless Olympics and you’ll win, at best, 6 Golds. I would argue that a gymnast who has mastered all 4 apparatus to that level is more impressive than Phelps, but she would not be able to compete in terms of medal count.

What Usain Bolt did in his one 100 Meter final damn impressive by itself even though it's "only" 1 record. That one gold/record, to me, carries the weight of a few swimming gold medals. Everyone can run. Rich, poor, whatever. Not everyone grows up with the access that Michael Phelps had to swimming and coaching. Bolt ran the fastest 100 ever and was celebrating with 15 meters left. Sprinters have to come out of like 3-4 prelims just to make the medal round. There’s a definite risk of fatigue or injury.

Phelps has redefined athletics, and athleticism.


He has returned us to the ancient, Olympic ideal.

Legend says Zeus' son, Hercules, created the Olympic Games after completing 12 labors over 12 years. Some of Hercules' tasks included having to bring back a three-headed dog from hell and retrieve golden apples that promised eternal life.

This is relevant how?

For Phelps, it was completing 17 races in eight days and amassing seven world records. As the Hercules myth spells out, the Games' origins are rooted in endurance. That is why we must consider Phelps' achievements in these Olympics as the greatest athletic feat ever accomplished.

Woah woah woah. Woah.


Let’s simplify this little bit of knowledge that Jemele has dropped on us and see if it makes sense.
The Olympics are about endurance, therefore Phelps’ winning 8 gold medals is the greatest athletic feat ever accomplished.

Isn’t that thinking a tad narrowly? Why is athletic accomplishment only relevant in the Olympics? Why does some ancient myth about what the Olympics are about determine what kind of athletic accomplishment is the best ever?

Back in ancient times all the kruglidites of super happy land defined the best athletes as those who could accurately strike small objects with curved sticks. Therefore, Tiger Woods is the best athlete ever.

It's not just about what he has done. It's about what he has endured.

That’s true, Lance Armstrong does not have the endurance that Michael Phelps does. Neither do those ultra-marathoners. Neither do Ironman triathletes, who swim like 2+ miles in the Ocean, bike 112 miles and then run a full marathon in the Hawaiian heat.

Endurance should be the key element that distinguishes greatness. What did Jordan endure when he won six NBA titles? Did he push his body to the limits Phelps has? Not even close.

If your measure of athletic greatness is limited to endurance, then you can throw out virtually all team-sport athletes. I think this is retarded. How many basketball games did Jordan play at an absurdly high level on his way to 6 championships? Like 600? Ha! Trivial!

How much endurance does it take to land some crazy ass vault like a gymnast, or to do some flips on a balance beam? Clearly not Michael Phelps’ level endurance, but can’t those athletic achievements be just as impressive? Is every marathoner a better athlete than every basketball player, football player, gymnast, etc. ever? HOW DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE?

What if an athlete existed that could long-jump 40 feet. 10+ feet further than anyone, ever. This same athlete could also hit cleanup for the Yankees and hit 75 homeruns and kick a football 85 yards with precision under NFL pressure. But all definitions of being an endurance athlete, this superhuman would fail to be a better athlete than Michael Phelps. SEE HOW THIS MAKES NO SENSE?

Of course, no one is disputing Jordan wasn't the best basketball player in the world, but Jordan's flu game couldn't compete with Phelps, who had a week's worth of flu games at the Olympics.

That’s a double negative, dingbat. You’re saying that Jordan was undisputedly not the best basketball player in the world. Who says Jordan’s “flu game” is his best athletic achievement? Why did Phelps have a week’s worth of flu games? What?

See, here's the thing: Jordan was sick. The Jazz were not sick. Phelps was not swimming under different conditions than the other swimmers. So he didn't have a week's worth of flu games. If all the Utah Jazz were also playing "flu games", then you'd have a point.

And it must be pointed out that Jordan, who ESPN SportsCentury named the greatest athlete ever, isn't even the biggest winner in his sport. Phelps is.

Again, this is poor sentence structure. To me, you just made it sound like Phelps is the biggest winner in Jordan’s sport. You can’t compare an NBA player to an Olympic swimmer.

And what did Joe DiMaggio's body endure when he hit in 56 consecutive games? Mentally, he was strained, just as Roger Maris was when he hit more home runs than anyone else in a single season. No disrespect to baseball players, but the fact that Babe Ruth -- who many consider the best baseball player to ever live -- could knock off a fifth of vodka every night during the season shows the level of physical commitment needed in baseball is a joke compared to what's physically required of Phelps, who burned as many calories each day during his quest as a marathoner does. What DiMaggio and Ruth did was a power walk.

Skill sport versus endurance sport. Again, if you think endurance is all that matters, then skill can’t win. The best athlete ever would be some ultramarathoner or triathlete.

How can you definitively say that Michael Phelps is a better athlete than Carl Lewis? Lewis dominated in sprinting various distances as well as long-jumping. He was, at one point, the fastest human in history and he also won Gold in long-jumping at 4 consecutive Olympics. Being a great athlete is more than endurance or speed. Some of the fastest people I’ve met happened to suck at team sports that require coordination, like basketball or baseball.

This is off-the charts in terms of piss poor, unenlightened analysis.

Tiger Woods, the best golfer in the world, won a major championship with a torn ACL. Phelps couldn't even dream of doing the same.

Because...his golf?? Swimming is all the sudden the only sport that one can compete in to become the greatest athlete ever. Isn’t that pretty much what she’s saying?

Besides, is Tiger as dominant in golf as Phelps is in swimming?

Same. It’s harder for the best golfer to win every tournament than it is for the best swimmer to win every race. There is so much different here, it’s not even funny.

What if every golf tournament was played between 8 golfers? Imagine Tiger’s record then. What if every swimming race, Phelps had to beat like 40 other swimmers? What if instead of the race being a back and forth of continuous laps, Phelps had to get out of the pool after ever 2 laps, and gather his thoughts about the swim he just had, then all the swimmers lined up and he had to go through all the mental preparation for the next set of laps and do it again? What if he had to do this for 18 sets, for four straight days, against 40 or so swimmers? Do you think he’d win every tournament, as Hill seems to want Woods to do in order to be his equal? SEE HOW GOLF IS DIFFERENT FROM SWIMMING? Jemele Hill does not.

No way.

Fuck you.

Ask yourself this: Whose field is tougher? Tiger's or Phelps'?

Like you know a god damn thing about Phelp’s “field”. You, like me, watch swimming every four years and know exactly what Rowdy Gaines tells you, and little else.

Since Tiger shut down his season because of his knee injury, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh have spent his absence out-choking each other. But Phelps has had to beat Ian Crocker, Ryan Lochte and Laszlo Cseh in Beijing - all of whom were world-record holders.

They are world record holders because of the crazy swimsuits being used (also, something about faster pools). They are quickly breaking each other’s records. It’s sort of silly, really.

Phelps is beating his competition in their individual specialties. Imagine if Kobe Bryant sang a better national anthem than Marvin Gaye, or if Alex Rodriguez dunked better than Dwight Howard.

Folks, I say this often, but that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever read from Jemele Hill. IMAGINE IF....Kobe Bryant could sing like Marvin Gaye!

Why is it up to Alex Rodriguez to be anything more than a baseball player to be one of the best athletes ever? We're not asking Phelps to be anything more than a swimmer. Imagine if Michael Phelps hit better than Alex Rodriguez? Why is it that team sport athletes need to be better in other sports entirely, but Phelps just has to be a great swimmer at different swimming disciplines. Carl Lewis beat the best sprinters and the best long-jumpers. Both of those are often separate specialties, moreso than swimming frontwards versus swimming backwards.

Many Baseball players are great at hitting, fielding and baserunning. Are these not more varied disciplines using different tools and skills than the breast stroke, freestyle or the butterfly? I say….who knows...but I’m more open minded than Jemele.

Wayne Gretzky, hockey's greatest scorer, collected 2,857 career points -- over 21 years. In two Olympics, the 23-year-old Phelps became the most decorated Olympian ever.

So Gretzky’s accomplishments are invalidated from this argument because they took 21 years to achieve. This makes no sense. Phelps has had more opportunity! They award a fuckload of medals in swimming, how is this not clear? The most medals Kobe Bryant can win? 1. The most Shawn Johnson can win? 6. Phelps has done a monumentally impressive thing but please, calm the fuck down.

Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game is nice, but not more difficult than setting a world record in six consecutive, grueling events, including winning two golds in one day.

Why not? Oh, you’re done.

All I’ll say is this; World records fall every freaking race it seems, and no one is dropping 100 points in an NBA game ever again.

Lance Armstrong's seven straight Tour de France titles probably comes the closest to matching Phelps. But it's impossible to be confident in Armstrong's achievements because he dominated one of the dirtiest professional sports in the world. Even if you believe Armstrong was completely clean, he essentially is doing just one thing. Phelps is proficient in four different strokes, at different distances.

So we get to act like Phelps is some multi-sport dynamo because they are different strokes? Is he the only swimmer swimming different strokes at different distances? Nope. Also, if we get to assume Armstrong was clean, as you say, then isn’t it more impressive that he so dominated a dirty sport? Aren't the different tour stages at different distances?

Football feats also don't measure up.

Because they are different sport??????HMMMM?!!!??!?!?!?!?!?

Not Emmitt Smith's NFL-best 18,355 career rushing yards or Tom Brady's single-season record of 50 touchdown passes.

What about them?

Brett Favre is considered by some to be the greatest passer ever, but he also holds the all-time record for interceptions.

This is interesting, how?

Would Phelps even be in consideration for greatest athletic achiever if he lost nearly as many races as he'd won?

No Olympic swimmer has lost nearly as many races as they’d won. That’s why they are in the fucking Olympics. But good point. I mean, Michael Jordan missed thousands of shots! What’s up with that? I’m pretty sure Barry Bonds used to make outs. Michael Phelps never struck out while swimming!

Think about it, the crux of her argument is something like this:

The best athlete must be the athlete with the most endurance AND
The best athlete must have varied skills, such as swimming different ways AND
All skills within team sports are vaguely classified under the skill of “playing sport X well”, therefore they are not as versatile as swimmers AND
I love Michael Phelps so I’m just saying whatever crap I can to support my argument!

Television commentators are comparing Phelps to an actual fish, or an amphibian. When we think of the greatest athletes ever, fish aren't usually what comes to mind. But with Phelps, all conventional thinking goes out the window.

Television commentators are dumb. Let’s rephrase:

Dummies are comparing Phelps to an actual fish, or amphibian, because he swims awesomely and is the flavor of the month. When we think of greatest athlete ever, smart people know that you can’t compare team sport athletes to individual sport athletes across eras. But with my terrible analysis of Phelps, you’ll notice that I’m incapable of thinking rationally and doing legitimate analysis.


Ryan Killian said...

Thank You

Anonymous said...

Phelps swam in competition for about a total of 45 minutes over the course of a week.

Anonymous said...

"Of course, no one is disputing Jordan wasn't the best basketball player in the world, but Jordan's flu game couldn't compete with Phelps, who had a week's worth of flu games at the Olympics."

I fucking hate Jemele Hill. SHE has argued that Kobe is better than MJ. She took a ton of heat for writing this. wtf?

Rob Dauster said...

No way.

Fuck you.

That had me DYING.

Reverend Paul Revere said...

I graduated with a journalism degree and I can guarantee Jemele Hill would fail every single class I took in college.
If she is not the stupidest woman on the planet, I'm not sure who is. ESPN forces Whitlock, who is a raging hypocrite but at least a good writer, out and employs Hill. What a crock of shit.

Scott F. said...

This is affirmative-action at it worst, guys.

Anonymous said...

I think George Carlin said it best: "Swimming is not a sport. It's what you do to keep from drowning."

Anonymous said...

God she wrote a horrendous article. It was so bad I couldn't stop reading it. It was almost like trying to get through an 8th grader's "What I did on my summer vacation" paper, but a little more boring.

Tell me she's being punished for this.

Owns said...

What, Scott F., you think she's stupid because she's black? Shut the fuck up you racist piece of shit. ESPN employs plenty of white morons as well. (Bill Simmons, anyone?)

Jeff, as for the post, your title holds sound, although many of your comments about Phelps do not. For example:

What if every golf tournament was played between 8 golfers? Imagine Tiger’s record then. What if every swimming race, Phelps had to beat like 40 other swimmers?

Actually, Jeff, while it's true that in a single race Phelps may only have to beat 8 other swimmers, to compete in that final race he had to finish in the top 16 in the preliminary races, and then in the top 8 in the semifinal races. The point is that the field is much larger than 40. For example, with eight preliminary heats for the Men's 200m freestyle, Phelps beat about 64 other swimmers.

I could go on, but unlike you losers I don't have the time to write an entire shitty column dissecting another shitty column.

rick said...

She sucks as a writer. This was established long before this. She isn't the only hack on espn's staff. I wish I could be as terrible at my job as some of these fucks are and not get fired.

Jeff said...


Is that because you "own" people on blog message boards. Bad-ass, man. My general point was that Swimming is not comparable to golf. I agree that I throw out some sloppy examples, but I don't quite have the time you imagine us loser having.

But no, Phelps didn't actually beat 64 other swimmers in the 200m free the way Tiger beats the field when he wins a major. Phelps came in 4th in the first round, 4th in the semis, and first in the finals.

Unlike Golf, the scores don't carry from round to round. Golf = very different from swimming, which was my point. Also, I was just throwing out quick numbers. Woods beat close to 80 golfers to win the US Open....with a torn ACL. In Jemele's mind this invalidates him from best athlete consideration because it means his sport must not require real endurance.

For the record, Phelps is the athlete of the year. His Olympic performance was unreal and I watched almost all of it. I just can't get behind any "best athlete ever" talk.

T said...

Sadly in trying to show how much Jemele sucks... you trashed Phelps... who must be considered the G.O.A.T in his sport.

He ran the table at the Olympics, going a perfect 8 for 8 in gold medals... beat the best in the world and set NEW records in all but one even (breaking his own records)... proving he is better than... himself!

Can you compare Phelps as better than MJ, Tiger, A-Rod, etc? No.. but you can't compare any of those guys to each other... that's the point. They are the best at their respective sports.

That is the point you should have made. All of these guys rock... at their own sports. She could have argued that MP was the best Olympian... that would be a more arguable story... (record for the most medals total belongs to a gymnast by the way)... Most of his 17 races were heats, since you have to cut down the field of finalists.

I am not a big fan of running or swimming but I do respect how there is no 'rest' in their sports. It's all all out until the finish... no slow downs or conservation of energy. Phelps made me interested in a sport that was of a marginal interest to me. I love sport and I love seeing the bar raised.

Now I'd like to see Chad Ocho Cinco race against M.P. in the pool like he said he would ;)