The Heisman Trophy is college football’s most prestigious award because the sports pages say it is. Why do they say it is? Maybe the Heisman’s choice of electors has something to do with it.              

The Heisman Trophy Web site goes into the history of the venerable football honor, established in 1935 by the Downtown Athletic Club of Manhattan. The site explains that “while the task of designating the most outstanding college football player was daunting, a crucial decision was the group of individuals chosen to select him. It was determined that a logical choice was sports journalists from all across the country who, as informed, competent and impartial, would comprise the group of electors.”      

To informed, competent, and impartial, add modest. Sportswriters who cover the Heisman and similar honors generally don’t get into the fact that they’re of the fraternity that picks the winners — unless, of course, they’re voters writing columns celebrating their powers of discernment. Having had my say recently on what I thought of them, I kept an eye on the weekend’s Heisman coverage. It was interesting. The stories I spotted on Troy Smith’s overwhelming victory consistently neglected to mention that the 924 voters were — with the exception of 53 former Heisman winners and one so-called fan vote — journalists. For example, Ralph Russo’s AP story, which ran in the Sun-Times, simply said, “Smith had 801 first-place votes and won the Heisman by 1,662 points.” The Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein said, “Smith earned 87 percent of the first-place votes, the highest share in the award’s history.” Even though the New York Times doesn’t allow its reporters to vote for athletic awards,  reporter Joe Drape kept the secret, referring vaguely to “Heisman voters.”      

The coverage leading up to the announcement was no different. In a December 8 piece Russo recalled that O.J. Simpson in 1968 won the most lopsided victory ever, “receiving 1,750 points more than the runner-up, Purdue running back Leroy Keyes. Then there were 1,200 Heisman voters. The number of voters decreased to 923 in 1988, so simple mathematics makes it difficult for anyone to touch that mark.” Somewhere in there Russo could have said who those voters were — but he didn’t. The next day the Web offered a derisive column by Bernie Lincicome of the Rocky Mountain News. Despite Lincicome’s disrespect, he honored the code of silence. “With minimal competition, and an undefeated team around him,” Lincicome wrote carefully, “Smith tied the hands of every Heisman voter by being the most prominent player on the most prominent team, though there is nothing in the voting instructions that mentions being prominent.  In fact, the trouble with the Heisman is there are no real rules, no bylaws, no specific qualifications other than, and I am quoting from instructions on the ballot, (1) sign it (2) mail it (3) let the Downtown Athletic Club know if you have not received the first two instructions.“

If not us, who? sportswriters sometimes wonder — about the Heisman, baseball’s Hall of Fame, and any of the many other sports honors scribes decide. Darned if I know. Even if sportswriters do the job better than anyone else could — it’s not their problem to solve.