It is widely accepted that 2016 has been the most vile year in memory—a train wreck contained inside the world’s biggest dumpster fire. But amid the swirl of venom, political excrement, and personal tears, it is worth savoring the fact that, in the world of sports, tragedy has not been the defining characteristic. On the field, the sports world has been an oasis of uplifting escape. And off the field, allegedly apolitical players have charted a high-profile path of resistance that our normal political channels have failed miserably to articulate.
Between the lines, this year will always be remembered for the numbers 3-1 and the way those digits became the prologue for two of the most epic comebacks in sports history. Two curses were broken by two long-suffering teams in two Midwestern cities leading to two parades that were less celebrations of championships than they were celebrations of community. I’m of course talking about the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs. The Cavs were the first team to ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, and they did it while competing only against the Golden State Warriors, the greatest regular-season team in the history of the NBA. Facilitating this miracle was LeBron James, who led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals: the most remarkable one-person performance, for my money, in NBA history.
The Cubs saw the Cavs’ drama and raised them, not least of all by beating the Cleveland Indians in the process. Even those of us distraught about all this year took from us had to feel a buzzy joy at the site of Cubs third-baseman Kris Bryant grinning as he fielded the final out of the Series, and then throw the ball as his feet slipped underneath him on the wet field. (This does not apply to Cleveland baseball fans.) That was the cap on what was the greatest game seven in the history of sports possibly just edging out the very game seven that the Cavs needed to beat the Warriors. Cleveland, after winning the city’s first title in any sport since 1964, gave us a victory parade with more people—1.3 million—than the entire population of the city itself. Chicago Cubs fans, celebrating their first title since Mark Twain was a working writer, gathered 5.5 million for the Cubbies, the seventh-largest gathering of humans in world history.
But the on-field miracles weren’t just found in those two series.
This year also gave us the greatest WNBA finals in history between the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, coming down to the last possession. The 2016 Rio Olympics burnished the legends of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. They also showcased the futuristic artistry of gymnast Simone Biles; the groundbreaking swimming of Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel; and the unbelievable performance from swimmer Anthony Ervin, who won gold in the 50m, 16 years after his last gold medal.
But sports was more than escape and a smile in 2016. We saw athletes use their platform to do something that politicians and the mainstream media refused to do: speak truth to power. This is not just the story of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, his anthem protests, and all that they sparked. There are new voices every day standing with Standing Rock, calling out police violence, and being proud opponents of sexism and homophobia. For me, this year of resistance started to take shape in June with the funeral of Muhammad Ali, organized by Ali and his wife, Lonnie, over the last 15 years of his life. I was in Louisville that entire weekend, and I can testify that it was a celebration of fighting hatred, standing up to anti-Islamic bigotry, and the importance of using sports as a platform of resistance. I am utterly convinced that the national appreciation of Ali’s life influenced everything that would come. I know it mattered to LeBron James, who stood on stage at ESPN’s ESPY awards with Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade, and said, “I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali. The GOAT. But to do his legacy any justice, 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.”