Most famously, Babe Ruth has been credited with saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal. Riding on the wave of the women's movement, Billie Jean King more or less created women's professional tennis. And Muhammad Ali kept boxing alive for its last hurrah.
But really, especially over a sustained period of time, has any one athlete ever mattered so much to a sport as Tiger Woods to men's golf?
Click on the audio link above to hear Deford's take on the issue.
This week, scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History will start unpacking some rare and precious cargo. It's something the Smithsonian has never had before — a nearly complete skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Most people don't know it, but the T rex that's standing tall in the Natural History Museum in Washington, DC, is a fake — a cast, a copy of the bones. It's an accurate replica, but for decades the Smithsonian has coveted a real skeleton of a T rex — the charismatic, 30-foot-long beast that's not only deliciously frightening to contemplate, but fascinating to scientists.
How did such an animal grow so large? How fast did it run? Was it a predator or a scavenger?
Now, courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, they've got one.
On a recent day, the Bozeman museum's director, Shelley McKamey, shows off a cast of the T rex's skull on exhibit. The skull is more than four feet long, almost as high, and its gaping maw could bite a cow in half.
"This is MOR 555, which is the scientific name of the specimen," McKamey says.
This skeleton coming to the Smithsonian is no run-of-the-mill gift. Though it was found on federal land, and so belongs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it is commonly known as the Wankel — after the Montana rancher who found it. It is one of the most complete T rex skeletons in the world; 80 percent of the animal's original bones are intact.
So why give it up to the Smithsonian?
"The opportunity for this T rex to be probably the most visited, the most famous T rex in the world," McKamey says. "You know, it deserves its chance in Washington."
McKamey also points out that Montana is thick with dinosaur bones; 65 million years ago the place was practically crawling with T rexes. The museum has another mostly complete T rex — called Tex Rex — in its collection.
Down in the basement at the Bozeman museum, workers pack the last parts of the Wankel T rex bones into wooden crates on a loading dock. Watching intently is a tall, brown-haired paleontologist who's the beneficiary of all this — Kirk Johnson, the new head of the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. He's seeing the skeleton for the first time.
Johnson gives the dinosaur's arm bones, which are Velcro-ed into a white plaster cradle, his measured scientific opinion: "Wow. Wow. Wow." This was the first complete T rex arm ever found. For such a giant beast, it's laughably small.
"I mean the amazing thing is, look at this," Johnson says, as he holds the T rex arm next it his own. "It's like my arm, my arm is the size of the T rex arm."
As museum staff seal the box and tape it up, another scientist looks on with a big grin. Matt Carrano is the Smithsonian museum's curator of dinosaurs, and he's been waiting two years for this day.
"It is a little bit like Christmas early, you know," he says. "It's very rare that you get to get your hands on even part of a T rex, right? So there's almost a complete skeleton over there."
The Wankel T rex will be the star of the Smithsonian's new, $48 million dinosaur hall, now under construction. The museum draws seven million visitors a year.
But Carrano says there's also lots of new science to learn from such a complete skeleton.
"You can do things like ask how old it was when it died, ask what kind of life it had before it grew up," he says.
The Bozeman museum, in fact, has used the Wankel to pioneer work on dinosaur histology — the nature of the material inside the bones — something few paleontologists had done before. They found evidence of tissue and blood vessels in T rex bones at the museum, including in the Wankel.
Carrano says his first project with the Wankel is likely to be investigating the purpose of those little arms.
Return to NPR.org for more coverage of the how the Smithsonian plans to make this meat-eating giant the nation's most famous dinosaur.
But what if the city you lived in footed the bill for college? That's what Kalamazoo, Mich., has been doing for almost a decade. In 2005, a group of anonymous donors launched an ambitious program. They pledged enough money to pay the tuition of most students who graduate from the district's public high schools to attend any of Michigan's public universities or community colleges.
The effort, called the Kalamazoo Promise, has spent about $50 million assisting more than 3,000 students from the city.
One of them, Erica Adams, was a high school sophomore when the program launched. She's since graduated from Michigan State University and is now a foster care specialist for the state of Michigan.
Adams and Kalamazoo resident Michelle Miller-Adams, author of a book about the program, The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo, both spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about how the program has changed how students and educators think about opportunities beyond high school.
On how the program is changing expectations among students and educators in Kalamazoo
Adams: Back when I was going to school, before the Promise was announced, teachers weren't really asking, "Well, what school are you going to after graduation," or, "What are you going to major in?" It was, "What are your plans after graduation?"
Whereas now, it's teachers telling you, "What school are you going to?" So it completely just changed the mindset that I think a lot of our administrators have — our educators and our kids have — in our community.
Miller-Adams: That's even happening at the elementary school level. I have a daughter who's been in Kalamazoo Public Schools elementary school for about five years. And, yeah, that college-going culture and attitude and expectations penetrates all the way down to kindergarten.
Adams: I think it kind of just lets all the kids know, too, that there's somebody out here that thinks that I'm worthy of having this education, regardless of my family situation [or] what class we are.
The stipulations for the Promise are not, you have to have a 3.5 GPA and all these extracurricular activities. You have to just have the willpower to do it, and that's pretty much it. And I just think that that's an amazing blessing, that somebody or a group of people put that much faith in this community.
On how the Promise broadens opportunity for Kalamazoo students after high school
Miller-Adams: We ... see a great deal of freedom that students are experiencing in being able to follow their passion and, most importantly, graduating with either no or very low levels of debt. ... And that opens up a huge range of possibilities. That opens up the possibility of graduate school for a lot of students. So the impacts are really pretty subtle and nuanced.
Adams: I had always [known] that I wanted to go to college. But it definitely just broadened all the opportunities as to where I could go. And it also kind of helped me to do exactly what I wanted to do, rather than what was going to be feasible for me and what I could afford — as opposed to a community college or something of that nature. ...
I also probably [would have studied] nursing or something like that, just because I know those are jobs where typically ... you can find jobs easily. ... So when the Promise was announced, I was like, "Big 10 Universities, here I come!"
On less-tangible benefits to the Kalamazoo community
Miller-Adams: We tend to focus on kids who weren't going to go to college and now can go to college. The reality of the impact is much more complex than that. Students are able to choose different colleges. ...
We [also] sometimes see — I hate to call it "trading down," but we see a shift in college preferences because of the requirement that you attend a public in-state institution. But, you know, that's quite good for the state, that more of our top students are being driven to public in-state institutions. ...
I think [the Promise donors] were also hoping to really strengthen and reinvigorate the school district that serves the urban core of our region. ... They were clearly looking ... for a transformative investment that would change not only the school district that serves our city, which is a high-poverty school district that had been shrinking for many years ... but also something that would transform the broader community. ...
And they were also seeking to make Kalamazoo a more attractive place for people to live and work, especially those people who value education. They wanted to make Kalamazoo "stickier." That's a term we hear a lot — harder to leave, more welcoming to come to.
On why Promise students are almost as likely to drop out of college as other college students
Miller-Adams: Yeah, I think that's one of the surprises that we find in the data. I think that we will see it change. This is a very long-term program. It's set up to continue in perpetuity. And, you know, we're only really eight years into it in terms of eligible classes.
The reality is that if you have things going on in your life, either academically or more importantly in your home life, that are keeping you from being successful in school ... the Kalamazoo Promise does not change those things. It doesn't take away a precarious home life, or insecure housing, or lack of access to food or really poor support in the home for your learning. ...
The reality is that we are still a very high-poverty district in a high-poverty city. And kids ... experience tremendous stresses. And so it's not that none of those kids can overcome those. But it is a lot harder for those students to really stay in school, be successful and make full use of the Promise. Lots of them are trying.
Louisiana's coast is disappearing at the rate of about a football field an hour. Since the 1930s, the Gulf of Mexico has swallowed up an area the size of Delaware.
You can see the water encroaching in Delacroix in St. Bernard Parish, less than an hour southeast of New Orleans. Here, a narrow crescent of land known locally as the "end of the world" is where the road abruptly comes to a dead end; in the distance, you see the tops of now-submerged trees.
"It's hard to imagine if the coast continues to erode and enormous amounts of money are not invested in protecting it, that New Orleans could survive," says historian John Barry.
Barry is known for his book Rising Tide, about the 1927 Mississippi River flood. Most recently, he was vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and pushed a lawsuit alleging that oil and gas companies destroyed land that once served as a buffer protecting New Orleans from hurricanes.
"The loss of this land has increased the storm surge on the flood protection authority's property — the levees — and made our burden much greater," he says.
'Sending A Message'
The authority is responsible for maintaining an elaborate new levee system built after Hurricane Katrina, an endeavor expected to cost about $40 million a year. And it's not the only one looking for energy companies to pay up; two Louisiana parishes are also suing for coastal restoration.
The litigious environment discourages business investment, says Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.
"That's sending a message to the oil and gas industry that if you want to operate in Louisiana, you have to be prepared to be sued," Briggs says.
He rejects claims that companies are to blame for about a third of Louisiana's land loss because of the canals they cut through wetlands.
"In the '60s and '70s, when we were doing exploration in coastal Louisiana, we had to create canals. So from a standpoint of land loss, it's clear that when you dig a canal or create a canal, that there's land lost," he says. "But being responsible for the coastal erosion side of it, that's not something we feel like we're responsible for."
Briggs says the reason Louisiana has a coastal land crisis is not oil and gas activity, but the way the Mississippi River has been controlled by the federal government. Flood protection systems prevent sediment from flowing downstream to replenish the Delta.
"Trying to blame us for something that is really the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers is really nothing more than just a money grab," Briggs says.
'Let's Have The Court Decide'
Somebody should pay, says Stephen Estopinal, current vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. He says the courtroom is the logical place to decide who should pay what.
"You bring 'em in the court, and let's have the court decide. That is the conservative thing to do," Estopinal says. "The liberal thing to do would be to have Uncle Sam come in and make it all better."
Estopinal is a surveyor and civil engineer from St. Bernard Parish, and has measured firsthand the disappearing coast. He says he's not out to cast oil companies as the lone villain.
"I don't want the oil and gas industry to take the whole bullet, because they're a very important industry. I like gas in my car. I also like to have a home to go back to," he says. "We're not talking about inconvenience, we're not talking about the little birdies, or how nice things looked before and how bad they look now. We're talking about survival."
The prospect of a legal fight has sparked an epic political battle in Baton Rouge. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and GOP legislative leaders are pushing bills to retroactively quash the lawsuits. Oil and gas severance taxes make up about 10 percent of the state's general fund budget.
Senate transportation committee Chairman Robert Adley worked most of his career in the oil and gas business. He says it is bad policy to target a key industry that had permission from the state to develop its natural resources.
"I don't believe that anyone ought to be sued or exploited for doing what they were told to do," Adley says. "Now, it's easy to argue about the big bad oil companies and that kind of thing, but the truth of the matter is we as a people, we want what they have."
Proponents of the lawsuits say it's the other way around.
"Oil companies can't leave Louisiana. We've got what they want," says Democrat Foster Campbell, a public service commissioner. "Here we have in Louisiana for years and years and years kowtowed to the oil companies under the threat we will leave Louisiana. They're not leaving Louisiana. We're where the oil is. We're where the gas is. We're where the delivery system is for America."
And America needs what Louisiana has. The question is just who should pay to keep Louisiana intact.
After months of focusing on how many people have or haven't signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, we now have a rough total (7.5 million) and everyone's keen to get to the bigger questions: How well is the law working? How many of those who signed up have paid their premiums and are actually getting coverage? How many were uninsured before they signed up? And just how big has the drop been in the number of uninsured people?
Unfortunately, the answers to some of these questions simply aren't knowable — or, at least, not knowable yet.
"It's very challenging," says Linda Blumberg, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Health Policy Center. "People want answers right away, and the best data sets we have obviously come out with a lag."
What's So Complicated?
That's partly because of the enormous size and complexity of health system and the law. But it's also because the insurance industry is mostly private and regulated by the states.
"The impact that all of these changes are going to have on the marketplace are going to play out differently all across the country," says Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for the trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. "Simply looking at national data doesn't tell you what's going to happen in a particular market in a particular state."
Still, it's worth taking a closer look at some of those questions.
How Many Folks Are Paying Their Premiums?
First, how many people have actually paid their premiums for insurance they've chosen through the health exchange? That's the final, and arguably, most important part of the sign-up process. Most insurers report numbers in the 80 to 85 percent range. You might assume the people not paying are deadbeats. But that's hardly the case.
"This is not at all surprising," says Ken Jacobs, who heads the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California Berkeley. The labor center just published a study of who's signing up for coverage in California. The research predicts that fully half the people who enroll in a plan through the California health exchange won't keep it for a full year.
That's always the case in the individual market, Jacobs says. It's transient.
"We have people who are starting in the non-group market and they get a job with job-based coverage and they leave," Jacobs says. "Or their income goes down and they end up going into Medicaid." Meanwhile, some others who have Medicaid experience a boost in income during the year and don't qualify anymore, "so they go into the exchange," Jacobs says, "or they get a job with job-based coverage and they leave the exchange."
In the case of the Affordable Care Act, he says, that transience was multiplied by lots of people who signed up in October and November and December — well before they had to pay their premiums.
"By the time they needed to pay," he says, "life had changed and they no longer needed that coverage."
Are There Really Fewer Uninsured?
Then there's the question of how the law is affecting people without insurance. But Jacobs says that asking whether people signing up had insurance previously is actually the wrong question — because of that same churning that affects the payment of premiums.
People move in and out of insurance all the time, he says, "and what the new marketplaces do is provide a place where people go rather than becoming uninsured during those times. And so you may have people who had insurance — job-based coverage - [then] lost their job, and now they're going into one of the marketplaces, rather than becoming uninsured."
The real question then, is whether the overall number of people without insurance goes down.
One presumes we'd begin to get a handle on that when the Census Bureau puts out its annual numbers in the fall. Except officials have decided to change the way they ask their health insurance questions for the Current Population Survey. (That's the study that produces the annual uninsured number.)
Those tweaks to the survey mean that, going forward, the uninsured numbers won't really be comparable to those of past years. That's produced some significant upset in the research community.
"It is a very unfortunate set of decisions in my opinion," says Blumberg of the Urban Institute. "We have all used the Current Population Survey for trends for measuring insurance coverage ... forever, it seems like, and we're not going to be able to do that because of the question changes."
Eventually, researchers say, the impact of the law will become more clear, as more data become available. But "eventually" is likely to be well after this year's elections — and possibly after the presidential contest of 2016.