Commentary

Genius! Sheer sports genius!

If we were handing out those "Genius Grants," sports would be well represented

Originally Published: October 12, 2011
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

GeniusDrew Litton for ESPN.comTheory of relativity? Child's play! Albert Einstein's got nothin' on the intellect in the world of sports.

It doesn't take a genius to know that the MacArthur Foundation is clueless when it comes to recognizing, well, genius.

If it did, then at least one sports figure in the past 30 years would have received the Foundation's so-called "Genius Grant" -- a $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowship given to those who, according to the MacArthur website, "show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future."

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Harry How/Getty ImagesYou have to be crazy to do what Shaun White does. At least he's creatively crazy.

Since 1981, there have been 850 recipients of the world-renowned Genius Grants, including economists, cellists, physicists, virologists, psychologists, journalists, percussionists, pianists, geneticists, neurologists, chemists, linguists, computer scientists and biologists. If you have an i-s-t at the end of your profession, you've got a shot at the $500k.

Farmers have won Genius Grants. Fishermen. Poets. Architects. Lawyers. Letter carver artisans. Critics. High school debate coaches. Radio hosts (hmmm, Mike & Mike?). The guy who wrote "The Wire" and "Treme."

But nobody, absolutely nobody, from one of the most creative worlds of all: sports.

"Part of that might be that people don't associate geniuses with sports," said a MacArthur Foundation spokesperson. "It's not that MacArthur doesn't want to recognize them. No one has risen to that level."

No one?

How about Bill James, one of the founding fathers of baseball statistical analysis? He's the tree trunk, and the likes of MLB general managers such as Billy Beane, Jon Daniels, Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman are the branches. James revolutionized the way we should look at a player's real value and applied it to every facet of the game and the business of baseball. It isn't a perfect science, but James helped bring meaning to those numbers on the back of bubblegum cards.

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George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesTroy Polamalu is the holder of the NFL's Endowed Chair for Distinguished Defense.

Or how about another Bill, as in Belichick? The Foundation says it looks for those who have shown "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction."

Memo to Genius Grant nominators: Watch the recent two-part NFL Films documentary on Belichick. Belichick doesn't simply coach the New England Patriots; he creates, he innovates, he designs (with a huge assist from owner Robert Kraft) a culture of accountability and accomplishment. He wins. Captains of industry want to know how he does it, not the other way around.

(And while I'm thinking about it, NFL Films' Steve Sabol qualifies for genius status, too.)

Have you ever seen Shaun White on a skateboard or snowboard? I wouldn't know a double cork from a champagne cork, but I know sports genius. White, an Olympic gold medalist and multiple winner in the Summer and Winter X Games, does things on and above snow and concrete that defy explanation. His competitive mind works in strange, wonderful and insightful ways.

Asked recently by the Deseret News if there were ways to make his sports safer, White said: "Foam. Lots of foam … I'm coming out with a new foam line. Just foam."

He was kidding. Probably.

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Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi has been giving a valedictory speech to the rest of women's basketball for years.

What more does Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have to do before we use the G-word with him? Granted, the anti-championship ring rant wasn't his finest moment, but otherwise his body of work -- in and out of sports -- is always forward-thinking. Same goes for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

You might not like them, agree with them, or root for them, but Cuban and Jones look at the world in grand, macro ways. They think big, dream big and do big. That matters.

We definitely have to make room for the UConn tag team of Geno Auriemma, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, and the long-standing brilliance of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Ever hear of Trip Hawkins? If you've played "Madden" football, then Hawkins should be your patron saint. He's the guy who turned a concept -- Let's do a state-of-the-art, authentic football video game with John Madden! -- into a reality. Pure genius.

With all due respect to the cellists, saxophonists, pianists, violinists, etc., who have received Genius Grants, none of them has ever had to perform while being blitzed by Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis or Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu.

Peyton Manning has.

Manning's football mind runs at 2.2 gigahertz. He micro-processes defenses, formations, tendencies, personnel groups and possible audibles in less time than it takes for you or me to pop open a frosty. What he does is artistry under the most extreme pressures.

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AP Photo.Jim RogashHow could the MacArthur Foundation ignore a man who wins Super Bowls and has an honorary doctorate degree from Boston University?!

Three other coaches/managers whose level of innovativeness and competiveness are worthy of Genius Grant consideration: the Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon, the St. Louis Cardinals' Tony La Russa and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

And if the Baltimore Ravens' Ozzie Newsome ever wants to write a book detailing his general manager secrets, I'll be the first to buy it. If Polamalu or Ravens safety Ed Reed ever do a lecture series on the art of defensive football, I'm in the front row.

Also, if the MacArthur Foundation folks are going to give a high school debate coach $500,000, why not do the same for a high school football or basketball coach? St. Anthony's Bob Hurley Sr., St. Thomas' George Smith and De La Salle's Bob Ladouceur come to mind.

I also nominate Nike's Phil Knight and Under Armour's Kevin Plank.

You'll roll your eyes, but Tiger Woods deserves genius consideration. PR genius? No. Husband of the Year? No. But put a golf club in his hands and he still transcends the sport.

He isn't the player he once was, nor will he ever be. That's my point: What he did -- which was overpower golf and all of sports for so many years -- was genius in itself. Just because his injuries and his own personal transgressions have reduced him (for now) to the 52nd-ranked player in the world, doesn't change his accomplishments.

And while I'm in golf mode, how can you look at what Mike Keiser has created at Bandon Dunes -- Scotland in Oregon -- and not think, Genius!?

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AP Photo/Andrew InnerarityFormer Georgetown coach John Thompson should lend his brain (and maybe his towel) to the NCAA, which could use it.

You've probably never heard of Denver Broncos vice president Jim Saccomano, whose 34 years with the team makes him the longest-serving pro sports administrator in Colorado history. He's brilliant in a thousand small but meaningful ways. Every franchise and every league needs its Yodas. Saccomano is a Yoda. Told you I did.

You have heard of John Thompson, the old Georgetown coach. Nothing against NCAA president Mark Emmert, but I'd love to see Thompson in the same job. The NCAA would never be the same.

Meanwhile, among the 22 MacArthur Fellows named last month was a University of North Carolina professor named Kevin Guskiewicz. Guskiewicz is a pioneer in the research and prevention of sports-related concussions.

And that, says the MacArthur spokesperson, is the closest sports and the Genius Grants have come to actually holding hands.

If the Genius Grants won't come to sports, then maybe sports has to come to the Genius Grants.

Can you say, Tony La Russa -- baseball managerist?

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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