I have received a great deal of thoughtful feedback on my article listing alternatives to Sports Illustrated’s coma-inducing choice of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as their Sportsperson of the Year. I believe that in Sports Illustrated’s best tradition, the Sportsperson of the Year should be someone who personifies the most important, evocative stories of the year. Following some terrific feedback from readers, I now have three more people to add to my list.
1—Neymar. The live-wire Brazilian soccer star spent the past year reviving the “The Beautiful Game,” leading many experts to believe that Brazil could be the home favorite when hosting the World Cup this summer. Yet Neymar in 2013 proved he was more than an athletes. Unlike Brazilian soccer legends Pele and Ronaldo, Neymar backed last summer’s mass protests against the gross waste and negligence connected to the government’s stadium and infrastructure spending for the World Cup. As Neymar wrote, “I’ve always had faith that it wouldn’t be necessary to get to this point, of having to take over the streets, to demand for better transportation, health, education and safety—these are all government’s obligations. My parents worked really hard to offer me and my sister a good quality life. Today, thanks to the success that fans have afforded me, it might seem like a lot of demagogy from me—but it isn’t—raising the flag of the protests that are happening in Brazil. But I am Brazilian and I love my country. I have family and friends who live in Brazil! That’s why I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest! The only way I have to represent Brazil is on the pitch, playing football and, starting today against Mexico, I’ll get on the pitch inspired by this mobilisation.”
Sure enough, he then starred in Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory over Mexico.
2—Brandon Marshall. In 2013, the Pro Bowl Chicago Bears wide receiver pulled off what may be an unprecedented act in sports history: traveling politically from someone who could be understandably seen as part of the problem in sports, to becoming somone who is unquestionably part of the solution. Early in his career, Marshall was arrested on drunk driving and domestic violence charges. Instead of continuing to spiral downward, Marshall sought counseling and has been open and honest about his own mental health problems. Amidst the NFL’s bullying scandal in Miami, Marshall was one of the most cogent and intelligent speakers about the toxicity inherent in the concepts of “manhood” in football.
He said, “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that your hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets.”
3—Katie Hnida. One of the most important and disturbing sports stories of 2013 was the ways in which jock culture and rape culture seemed to be inextricably bound. From Steubenville, to Torrington, to Maryville, to Vanderbilt University, to the treatment of Jameis Winston’s accuser in Tallahassee, there were a shocking number of stories in the sports pages about rape and the ways in which the reverence for young athletes created a culture of cover-ups. Katie Hnida was uniquely situated to discuss this and did not shirk from the task. Hnida was first woman to play professional arena football with the Ft. Wayne Firehawks in 2010 and also became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A game, with New Mexico. In 2004, Hnida also told Sports Illustrated that as a member of the Colorado Buffaloes, she was raped by members of the football team. She was condemned for coming forward and no charges for filed. One would more than understand if Katie Hnida never wanted to discuss the ways in which jock culture and rape culture intersected. Instead, she was a nuanced and important voice throughout the year. In my own interview with Hnida, she said, “I know that jock culture does not have to produce sexual assault because at New Mexico we were a family so I have seen how sports can be a force for good.” She has also said with razor-sharp clarity, “We all have the right to autonomy over our own bodies…I’m happy to be able to say I survived sexual violence.”
Thank you, Neymar. Thank you, Brandon Marshall. Thank you, Katie Hnida. You were all a part of turning a very somber 2013 sports year into one with highlights of hope and inspiration