A couple of weeks ago, the NFL's "Most Valuable Player" was named. It was Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, and everywhere for a day or two the news went out that he and Brett Favre were the only three-time winners of that award.
Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
Peyton Manning joined Brett Favre in the three-time NFL MVP club. But did you know there are four members of that club?
This is not true.
A short memory is at once the weakness and the genius of America; on the one hand condemning us to repeat a past we haven't learned from, on the other allowing us to move forward into our future without dragging the grudges and dead weight of history behind us. Living in an endless present while looking only ahead has been our national habit from the moment of our founding.
So when that MVP announcement came, and was quickly overtaken in our relentless news cycle by other stories great and small, not much was made of it. "Peyton Manning voted AP's NFL MVP" read the headlines one day, and folks online and in roadside diners and corner bars argued briefly and without much conviction over whether Manning was more valuable to the Colts than Adrian Peterson was to the Vikings or Philip Rivers to the Chargers or Kurt Warner to the Cardinals. It seemed reasonable to say he was, so those arguments ended long before the coffee cooled or anyone's beer went flat.
But in the eternal present of the American moment, and in the lead sentence of the Associated Press dispatch under that very headline, it was also stated that Manning and Favre were the only three-time winners of this honor. They are not. And here we find a problem likely to persist long after your coffee's gone cold.
What most of us are talking about when we talk about the "NFL MVP" is the award given annually by The Associated Press. The AP is a global news service, one of the last of the mammoths from the teletype age, and their Most Valuable Player award is as near an official NFL "player of the year" honor as we're ever likely to get. Other, smaller organizations vote for a series of football awards each season too, but the one we argued about down at the diner that day is the one given by The Associated Press.
The voting for this award is done by tallying the opinions of 50 or so members of the working football press within that big AP combine. These people know football, and are as reliable -- if blandly predictable -- a mechanism for highlighting NFL excellence as any that might be devised.
Not the problem.
The problem is that both Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown are also three-time winners of the AP NFL MVP. You may have heard of them.
So while a clarification of that point eventually filtered out from AP world headquarters to the rest of us, the moment of our initial interest had passed, overtaken by even newer news. Thus our understanding of our own history took yet another knee to the groin.
The confusion and failure of memory here arose from the troubles of language and transcription and the passage of time. Is a "Player of the Year" the same as a "Most Valuable Player"? The AP thinks not. Was their award first given in 1957 or 1961? The AP disagrees with itself on the point. Were the old records -- taken from clip files and microfilm -- entered correctly into the AP's computer database when they went digital years ago? Probably not.
Last week I spent some time on the phone talking about all this with historian John Turney of the Pro Football Researchers Association. He had called for AP to clarify its own history even before the award was given this year, and he makes a strong case. For his detailed and well-researched explanation of the chain of likely mistakes that led to the absence of Brown and Unitas in those early stories, you should read his commentary here, at ProFootballWeekly.com.
To further confuse things, visit Jim Brown's page at Pro-Football-Reference.com. Among his many accolades, you'll note that in addition to the AP awards in 1957, 1958 and 1965, he was also named "MVP" by United Press International in 1963. UPI, now fallen on harder times, was for decades the AP's slightly smaller rival among the news services. But back in 1963, UPI was still considered very important. A case might therefore be made that Mr. Brown is actually a four-time winner of the NFL MVP award. That's how the Pro Football Hall of Fame refers to him.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
If given credit for his four MVP awards, Jim Brown is in a class all by himself.
As the greatest player in NFL history, this is as it should be.
The injury here, the insult, is not just to Jim Brown or Johnny Unitas and the mythology of their accomplishments. Rather, that missing history dims a little the achievements of Favre and now Manning by not including them shoulder to shoulder with Unitas and Brown whenever the topic comes up.
There are plenty of questions worth asking about the NFL "Most Valuable Player" award in the spirit of its improvement. Should it really be given before the playoffs? Wouldn't the "most valuable player" by definition be the one who got his team deepest into the postseason? As I write this late on the night of Jan. 11, has Manning been more valuable to his team this season than Joe Flacco has been to his? Or Donovan McNabb to his? Or Kurt Warner to his? And having handed the award only twice to defensive players in its 50-year history, and only once to a lineman, shouldn't the voters take a broader view of the game and the men who play it?
Or maybe the most significant improvement would be simply not forgetting to whom it has already been given.
While I wonder about the nature and benefit of awards generally, I suppose they're part of the impulse in us all to organize life into slightly tidier piles. Good, better, best; Oscar, Pulitzer, Nobel. A way to commemorate excellence before it slips down the memory hole.
As subjective as awards are -- define "outstanding performance," define "valuable" -- and as many of them as we now hand out in our kiddie-sports culture, because suburban no-fault self-esteem demands a trophy just for piling into the minivan one evening a week, there are plenty of awards and prizes that don't mean much, even to the people winning them. These merely cheapen us.
But there are a few we should all agree deserve our remembrance: small milestones of our progress on the way forward. We honor these, and ourselves, by not forgetting, if only as a way to catalog and keep handy what's worth aspiring to as we look ahead. Even if it's only football.
"This is important," Mr. Turney said last week at the end of our conversation. "History is important."
He then quoted me a popular aphorism attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
"History is not history unless it is the truth."
Historians still disagree over whether Lincoln ever said this.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him here.