One writer recently painted 2016 as “a train wreck contained inside the world’s biggest dumpster fire.” Indeed, it has been a vile year of venom, tragedy and struggle.
Thank goodness, sports has provided us brief escapes from harsh reality. And what a year it has been. From Payton Manning leading an unlikely team to a Super Bowl championship in his swan song, to the unthinkable World Series victory by the Chicago Cubs, to the Cleveland Cavs’ recording the biggest comeback in NBA Finals history, to Jimmie Johnson tying the all-time NASCAR championships record, to a 5,000-to-one shot winning the English Premier League soccer title, to Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps adding to their golden legacies in the Rio Olympics, to the celebration of the life of Muhammad Ali.
Amid all the drama, there are plenty of athletes who might have been considered for the coveted Sports Illustrated “Sportsperson of the Year” title.
But in the end, it could only have been one of two - two athletes who transcended their sports, but did so in the most polar opposite ways imaginable.
LeBron James, the dominant athlete of his generation in his sport, putting the Cavs on his back to rebound from a 3-1 deficit to beat unbeatable Golden State.
And Colin Kaepernick, a has-been second-string quarterback on a third-rate NFL team who found fame while sitting on the bench.
Strange, isn’t it?
The thing is, this isn’t an Athlete of the Year or an MVP award. Before you choose, you have to determine what a “sportsperson” is. The most famous, or prolific? The most giving, or controversial? Do you base it on rings, philanthropy, magazine covers? On a voice?
James and Kaepernick both made an impact outside their sports as Ali had done in an even more difficult era so many years before, with a voice.
James, I daresay, did so in an uplifting and stately way, Kaepernick in a rather more uncomfortable and divisive fashion. Maybe both are needed.
King James has spoken out on issues and causes: Black Lives Matter, education, the presidential campaign, calling out racist terminology. His foundation has done spectacular work for at-risk children. Once a conceited man-child who mocked opponents, cast himself as star of a TV special to announce his departure from his hometown team, and had “Chosen 1” tattooed across his back, James has somehow found grace and soft-spoken strength, something sorely lacking in a world of sports heroes who act like petulant children in press conferences - and yes Cam, we’re looking at you.
In addressing social ills today, James stood on stage with his besties during the ESPY Awards and recited, “…let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves… Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence. And most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”
Kaepernick sat the bench during the National Anthem at preseason football games, and presumably would still be there if someone hadn’t finally asked him why.
First of all, I’m not totally sure he wasn’t just not bothering himself to stand up. I haven’t seen any information that it was a form of public protest, until he got asked, and said he didn’t want to stand for the flag of a country where people were being killed by police. What football games, a song or a flag have to do with that issue, I’m not sure. But, oh have things taken on a life of their own. A super-wealthy, pampered football player has become the spokesperson for all things inequitable. Go figure.
This is not to say that Kaepernick is wrong, by the way. The concerns he expresses are legitimate ones that need public attention and dialogue. But to some, the disrespect for country drowns out the message. His actions have not always been very mature or effective - you may recall the socks with cartoon “pigs” to mock police officers, the Fidel Castro t-shirt, and rather lame attempts to justify why he doesn’t bother to vote.
Our two Sportsperson candidates are very different in skill set, personality and expression. One has gone from the most hated person in his sport to perhaps the most beloved, and the other from being completely irrelevant to being the most polarizing character in sports.
One thing you could say they have in common - they have awakened a generation of sports celebrities to discover their voice. Between the two, and you might add Serena Williams and a few others in there, they have built the platform for athletes to try to make a difference on the issues that move them. They have given cause for all of us to revisit the importance of freedom of speech - whether or not we agree with what is being expressed.
We may never again expect athletes to just play ball, though there may come times we would like to.
I’m not thrilled to see high school kids copying an angry quarterback and disrespect the national anthem and the flag at school events - concerns can be expressed without insulting the country that gives us the very freedom to have that discussion.
But if someone can inspire a kid to be more aware, to speak out and peacefully question what he or she feels is wrong with their world - in their own hearts, that is, not copying the opinions of famous celebrity jocks - that’s for the good. No matter the source.