Several eyebrows were raised last night at the 2014 Golden Goggles Award Ceremony as Michael Phelps’ name was announced as the “Male Athlete of the Year” award. The announcement’s rather quiet reception was further amplified as Phelps himself was not in attendance to accept the award; Keenan Robinson, Athletic Director of NBAC, received the award in Phelps’ absence.
Since last night, there have been both civil and not-so-civil discussions on the topic of which swimmer really should have been awarded the “Male Performer of the Year” prize.
Officially, SwimSwam has no opinion on the matter, but we’ve seen enough of the argument on both sides of the award, and below we’ve basically aggregated them. What the debate boils down to is that his numbers can’t be looked at without thinking about what he did outside of the pool, and what he did outside of the pool. This is the crux of a new series we call “Objectivity,” where we basically aggregate the thoughts of our readers and the community, as well as put our own argumentative skills to good use, and present both sides of the debate.
We leave it to each of our readers to decide which side they fall on.
The Case For Phelps
by Loretta Race.
To review, the dictionary presents the following when referring to the definition of the term “athlete”:
noun \ˈath-ˌlēt, ÷ˈa-thə-ˌlēt\
: a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength
The definition does include the words ‘sports’, ‘games’, ‘physical strength’; it does not include words such as ‘character’, ‘good decision-making’ and ‘cautiousness’. Phelps is not the first, nor will he be the last, athlete across sports to win an MVP award after a DUI arrest.
To offer up an objective analysis as to why Michael Phelps did, in fact, deserve to win, let us break down the actual data surrounding athletes on the ballot for the title – Michael Phelps, Tyler Clary and Connor Jaeger.
Average Place Earned
We reviewed the race information for the athletes over the following meets in which all three contenders participated in 2014: Mesa Grand Prix, Charlotte Grand Prix, Santa Clara Grand Prix, Summer Nationals, Athens Bulldog Grand Slam, and the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships. Over the course of these six domestic and international, Clary raced in the most number of finals (22), followed by Phelps (19) and then Jaeger (17). When reviewing the actual place positions that resulted of each of these finals races, Phelps earned the highest average “place per race”. Meaning, on average, Phelps placed in 2nd (2.26 avg) when taking into account all of his finishes across all of his race results. Jaeger was second in this measure, at 3rd (3.70 avg) and Clary was just barely third in this regard (3.77 ave).
ADVANTAGE: Michael Phelps
Average First Place Finishes
Taking the above race evaluation one step further, we looked at the percentage of FIRST PLACE finishes per athlete over the course of the aforementioned meets. Connor Jaeger was the winner in this category, with 41.2% of his race finishes resulting in first place. He was followed by Phelps at 36.8%, and then Clary at 27.3%.
ADVANTAGE: Connor Jaeger
Number of World Rankings
Of course these “Male Performer of the Year” nominees are phenomenal swimmers on the U.S. scene, but what about worldwide? We looked at the number of world ranking spots each swimmer holds from throughout 2014. Phelps and Clary are both tied with four Top 25 World Rankings (for LCM events) apiece. Phelps holds the #1 spot in the 100m butterfly, the #3 spot in the 200m IM, the #15 spot in the 100m freestyle, and is ranked #16 in the 100m backstroke. Clary’s highest world ranking position is #2 in the 400m IM, followed by #3 in the 200m backstroke, #9 in the 200m butterfly, and #10 in the 200m IM. Jaeger holds his own with three Top 25 World Rankings spots with #5 in the 800 free, #6 in the 1500 freestyle, and 400m freestyle.
ADVANTAGE: Michael Phelps AND Tyler Clary
Average World Rank
Taking the world rankings theme a bit further, we calculated the AVERAGE world ranking based on the information above. Phelps’ average world ranking is 9th place, while both Jaeger’s and Clary’s average world ranking position is 6th.
ADVANTAGE: Tyler Clary and Connor Jaeger
World’s #1 Percentage
There is a distinct differentiation, however, when it comes to examining the percentage of each athlete’s world rankings that hold the top spot in the world. With Phelps holding the #1 position in the 100m butterfly, his percentage of world rankings positioned at number 1 is 25%. With neither Clary nor Jaeger having a world ranking any higher than #2, they each have a percentage of 0% for this measure.
ADVANTAGE: Michael Phelps
World’s Top Five
If we were to relax the parameters just a tad and instead look at each athlete’s percentage of world rankings in the top 5, Phelps and Clary would lead the way tied at 50%. That means that 50% of their world ranking positions fall at #5 or higher. For Jaeger this number sits at 33%.
ADVANTAGE: Michael Phelps and Tyler Clary
Assigning a point value of “1” to each of these measurements, the final tally is as follows:
Phelps – 4
Clary – 3
Jaeger – 2
Therefore, based on this strictly numerical analysis, there is sound reasoning to why Michael Phelps earned the “Male Performer of the Year” award. But, whenever dealing with Phelps – the Greatest Olympian of All Time – there is something immeasurable surrounding him as well – his charisma, his spark, his sheer ability to just suck the air out of the room with his presence. This is something unable to be quantified, but follows Phelps wherever he goes and certainly feeds into his ability to contribute much to this sport.
The Case Against Phelps
by Braden Keith
Sure, it’s fair to give an Athlete of the Year award to the best Athlete of the year, but in a year where no male really had a dominant season anywhere, why not let a little morality slip in as the tie-breaker?
Tyler Clary won the same number of individual golds (1) at the Pan Pac Championships as Michael Phelps did, and one more individual medal (3 vs. 2) than Phelps did. Yes, Phelps picked up the two extra golds from the 800 free and 400 medley relays, but the reality is that a lot of swimmers could’ve been put on the medley relay and won gold (though, the next substitute for Phelps in the 800 free relay probably would’ve cost the team).
While the focus of these awards is Pan Pacs, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Clary won two individual national championships, whereas Phelps didn’t win any.
Connor Jaeger had a very similar resume to Clary, with one gold and three total individual medals at Pan Pacs, and he was the National Champion in the men’s 1500 free. More significantly, he beat the defending Worlds silver medalist Ryan Cochrane of Canada and the defending World Junior Champion Mack Horton of Australia.
There’s plenty of examples in sports of athletes being prevented from winning awards when looked beyond just their numbers. There’s at least a dozen sure-fire Hall of Famers in baseball, based on numbers alone, who aren’t being allowed in because of suspected (but not proven) steroid use, or gambling. In no other sport can an actually be suspended for a portion of the season and still expect to win the MVP Award.
In short, giving it to any of these three swimmers, on pool resume alone, wouldn’t have been a travesty, so why continue to make the tie-breaker the fact that “Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and sells the most tickets?” That’s no more or less fair than making the tie-breaker about who was the best role model out of the pool.
What’s more important is that the Golden Goggles awards, at their core, are a charity event, designed to raise money for the USA Swimming Foundation and its efforts to prevent childhood drowning across the country. Do you know what kills more people in the United States than drowning? Drunk driving. Is that the proper message for a charity event like this?
Give Phelps his credit though: he stayed away from the event to avoid the inevitable distraction that his presence would have been. Still, it would have been great to see the award go to someone who will be on the Worlds team in 2015 and could use it as a springboard into more competitive and financial success, as compared to Phelps who mutually removed himself from the Worlds team.
In this country, the sport has been built around two things: Michael Phelps winning gold medals, and everyone else winning gold medals while “being good people.” If those are the two narratives that we insist upon in this country, it’s about time we choose the one that has better long-term prospects.