Today’s athletes have to carry a lot more baggage than a smelly gym bag and the giddy dreams of their parents. If they hope to achieve true greatness (or GOAT-ness) – and not just fleeting athletic notoriety – they also have to shoulder the leg-wobbling weight of responsibility to the community. This responsibility can come in different forms: charity work, as a role model and/or political activism. At the same time as they’re pushing the boundaries of their sport, they have to help define and promote the values of their community, even if that goes against some of the members of that community. That kind of athlete needs as much courage off the court as they do on it. Maybe more. With that in mind, in no particular order, here are my picks for athlete of the year, based on conduct most becoming a professional athlete.
Colin Kaepernick, football
Colin Kaepernick is still being punished by the NFL for exercising his right to peaceful free speech. Despite protestations of innocence from various teams, his continued absence from the league is a deliberate message meant to keep players in line and pander to football fans who aren’t also fans of the Bill of Rights. This is truly a case of a league misreading the room – and the decade. His influence has only spread more during his enforced absence from football. Nike’s use of his image in their ad campaign increased sales 31%. On 14 December, seven members of the Prince George County Board of Education sent a letter to Washington requesting they give Kaepernick an immediate tryout for the team after their two starting quarterbacks went down with injury: “We believe that giving Kaepernick an opportunity will send the right message to our students and community members, who see him as someone who cares about issues affecting our community.” Washington have instead chosen to start a quarterback who last threw a pass in the NFL in 2011. Kaepernick risked everything to quietly protest racial injustice while the NFL is unwilling to risk anything to do what’s right.
Maggie Nichols, gymnastics
University of Oklahoma gymnast Maggie Nichols will be honored in January with the 2018 NCAA Inspiration Award. This year she won an NCAA individual national championship as well as becoming the first gymnast with two perfect 10s on every event. She is the only gymnast to post back-to-back “Gym Slams” with a 10.0 on every event in consecutive seasons. What makes her achievements even more remarkable is that she accomplished this while undergoing the kind of personal stress that would have sidelined most of us. Right before the start of the 2018 season, Nichols revealed that she was the first of what would become hundreds of young girls to accuse Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, of sexual molestation.
Beyond exposing the exploitation of the athletes, her courage in coming forth also led to uncovering the negligence of the USA Gymnastics organization in stopping the abuse. The subsequent lawsuits have resulted in USA Gymnastics declaring bankruptcy and a complete reorganization. “Coming forward made me a stronger person,” Nichols said. “Going through such a traumatic event and growing the courage to come forward took a lot of strength for me. It was very hard. But after I did so, I felt that I was inspiring others which gave me so much strength and made me feel like an inspiration which is so motivating.” Because of her and the other gymnasts who have come forward, thousands of other young girls are safer to focus on the joys of the sport instead of worrying about predators.