Big Ten Icons Riles Buckeye State

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 02/16/2011 5:32 AM
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Sports Television
Big Ten Icons Riles Buckeye State
By John Porentas

Big Ten Network CEO Mark Silverman had his flack jacket out yesterday. Silverman needed it because the verbal bullets started flying in Ohio when his network announced that OSU track and field legend Jesse Owens was named the third place Big Ten Icon in the BTN series spotlighting the top-50 league icons of all time. Each of the top-20 on that list are being featured with a 30-minute show hosted by Keith Jackson. The announcement stunned people in the Buckeye State who thought Owens was a shoe-in for the top spot.

"I'm the one taking the bullets" said Silverman with a laugh. "It comes with the territory. I get that."

What is on the minds of people in Ohio, and a good number of them not in Ohio, is who the heck decided what the order of ranking was, and what were the criteria applied. Silverman explained.

"We used a lot of input to get the twenty," said Silverman.

"When we got down to final group (of 20), we had a group of 12 to 14 people who are our production and programming people, and some key execs at the network who voted on the ranking.

"We literally did a balloting with a 5-4-3-2-1 point system and we just kind of totaled it up," Silverman said.

It's not likely that anyone would have a problem with the method, so why did the result end up creating such a flap? The answer probably lies in something the television industry loves to talk about, the demographics of the group. In this case, the demographics of the voting group that are probably the most important are age and education.

The voting group consisted not of sports historians, long-time sports journalists, or successful people from the world of sport, but rather television people, and they have their own slant, their own way of seeing things. Further, it was a pretty young group as well.

"We had a nice cross-section in there. There were a couple of guys in their 20s, a bunch in their 30s, and a few us in the 40s," said Silverman.

What isn't known is whether the younger voters had a real appreciation for just how momentous Owens' accomplishments were. In their memories, Track and Field is an afterthought in the sports world, taking center stage about once every four years for the Olympics. In their lives, it has been football and basketball in the forefront, with baseball trying to hang in there but losing ground. In the 1930s however, it was Track and Field, along with baseball, boxing, golf and horse racing that captured the attention of the sporting world.

Track and Field was king then, and Jesse Owens was the most famous athlete in the most important sport of the day. What makes Owens' career all the more compelling was the stage on which he succeeded. The world stood poised on the brink of world war, a world war fomented by Adolph Hitler, one of the most infamous racists of all times. Owens' performance in the Olympic games in Germany, with Hitler in attendance in the stands, was living proof that master race was anything but. It was an amazing moment in world history that was made possible by a remarkable athletic performance. That is likely what escaped the younger voters, though Silverman, who counted himself as one of the "older voters", saw Owens as the clear-cut number one.

"You can argue it all you want. He was number one on my ballot," said Silverman.

"I don't know if it's an age thing. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why certain people feel certain ways but these are people I respect, people who work for the network and have done a good job and whose opinions should be accounted for something. It's not my ranking, but I'll stand by it," Silverman said.

Silverman let the opinion of the group supercede his own, though he remains to this day a bit baffled by the outcome of the vote..

"I was a little surprised when we came up with that pick," Silverman said.

"The stage that Jesse did this on, you can't compare it to anything.

"When I watch the black and white footage I still get chills. I really do. I think in terms of sports theater it's up there with anything.

"The top things in my mind, I think of Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, Jesse Owens running in front of Adolph Hitler, those are just incredible. There's very, very few of these incredibly iconic moments on a stage like that. It's amazing."

Silverman is passionate when he says those things, but the vote still went against him. Why? Lack of historical perspective is one possible answer. Another is that the criteria for making the selection was just a bit vague.

"There was some subjective elements that are beyond stats and awards that were considered," he said.

Silverman would not reveal who the two athletes are that will be ranked ahead of Owens, but the educated guesses are that they are Red Grange and Magic Johnson. Silverman talked about how his voting panel felt about the career of Johnson as an example of the subjective criteria that were applied.

"A guy like Magic, what was considered by this group was not so much the record or the title. The issue was 'What lasting impact on his sport was achieved?'

"The viewpoint was that the final-four and the NCAA basketball tournament was basically the year Byrd and Magic came on the scene lifted the entire NCAA basketball world and the tournament into a completely different level of national importance and national impact out there.

"That season the tournament took on this new world that today is vastly different than it was. It was a nice little thing rather than this juggernaut to follow."

Silverman let his group be the final arbiter, but he personally remains steadfast in his support of Owens as the number one Icon.

"You do not have to pump up Jesse Owens to me, believe me. Everything about him is just really remarkable."

"When you are addressing things like national pride and world wars, you get to things that are monumentally important.

"I completely understand it and frankly agree personally with a lot of that. I think there is a difference of circumstances with those guys.

"I'm comfortable with saying that Jesse Owens could easily have been the number one Icon. That's how I voted, but we were using the opinions of a group of people and it was just fairly mathematical rather than just me over ruling. We took everyone's views into account."

Democratic? Yes, without a doubt. A wise decision? That's what is open to debate, but Silverman knew that was going to be the case when the project began.

"We discussed and we debated. People made the case for all these different guys, then we tried to order them. We knew the controversy would be coming down the road," Silverman said.

Silverman said there has been controversy with nearly all the selections, but the selection of Owens as third, rather than first, has sparked the most pushback, though one other selection caused a fair amount of angst as well.

"The only other one, and it's not as much, is Charles Woodson," said Silverman.

"Michigan fans could not understand how the only player to ever in college football history as a defensive player to win the Heisman, played on their only national championship team in recent memory, they could not understand how he could be that low at 20. I would compare the two, but I would say the Jesse one is more significant."

The bullets are flying, and though his vote coincides with the opinion of those who are firing the verbal barrages, Silverman remains the one in the cross hairs as he stands up for his guys that did the voting.

"Unfortunately that part gets left to me," he said.

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