Usually, to be a world-class athlete is to be a world-class optimist. It’s practically a job requirement. The lottery-length odds against making it to the top level, the brutal competition once you’re there, the inevitability of injuries and bad bounces and cold streaks—staying positive requires a messianic belief that with enough effort and dedication, somehow things will work out fine.
As we’re all painfully aware, 2020 was a year to try the patience of even the most positive among us. “Man we cancelling sporting events, school, office work, etc etc.,” LeBron James lamented to his 48 million Twitter followers on March 12, the day after the coronavirus forced the NBA to suspend its season. “What we really need to cancel is 2020!” And the year got worse from there. The virus has now claimed more than 275,000 American lives. The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd set off nationwide protests against police brutality and racial inequality. An ugly presidential election further divided a deeply partisan nation.
There’s a choice to be made at moments like this. We can turn inward, cowering from destructive forces that feel beyond our control, or work to bend the arc of history. That is the more difficult option, the braver path—and yes, even someone as driven and accomplished as James can have moments of frustration. But it’s clear which path he has chosen, and he is not alone. If there is brightness in this dark year, it’s the leadership—and sorely needed optimism—shown by some of the nation’s top athletes in facing down our many challenges.
And so our Sportsperson of the Year award goes to five men and women who in 2020 were champions in every sense of the word: champions on the field, champions for others off it. Patrick Mahomes, the Super Bowl MVP who used his platform as the NFL’s transcendent star to push the league to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement and players’ rights to protest. Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Open tennis champion who embraced her fame and found her voice in the fight against social injustice. Breanna Stewart, who returned from a devastating injury to lead her team to the WNBA title and who spoke loudly against racism and for women’s equality. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the Chiefs’ lineman who became a Super Bowl champion and then left the NFL to join the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. And James, who led the Lakers to the NBA title, won his fourth Finals MVP trophy and worked tirelessly to end voter suppression and ensure that in 2020 everyone—especially Black people—had equal access to the polls.
Mahomes, Osaka, Stewart and Duvernay-Tardif are all under 30 and early in their activist journeys. James, 35, long ago found his social and political voice. There is debate over whether he’s the greatest NBA player ever. But with his efforts for racial justice, education reform and Black community empowerment as well as his voting rights campaign and varied charitable work, there is no doubt that he sets the standard for the modern socially conscious athlete. It is for his career-long dedication to service that Sports Illustrated also honors him with this year’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. “He continues to embody Muhammad’s principles and core beliefs, using his celebrity platform to champion social justice and political causes that uplift all people,” says Lonnie Ali, the Greatest’s widow. “LeBron has actively used Muhammad’s example to guide, inform and inspire him along this path.”
Thirty-five years ago this month, fresh off leading the Lakers to an NBA title and earning Finals MVP honors, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named our Sportsperson of the Year. The consummate athlete-philosopher of our time was typically thoughtful in his interviews for Gary Smith’s profile, never more so than when describing his mindset while hoisting one of his trademark skyhooks: “You center on your inner calm and your target, isolate everything else until you and your objective become one.”
It was as if Abdul-Jabbar had let readers into a secret club reserved for athletic royalty, granting poetic insight into the type of focus it takes to be the best. That kind of connection was on our minds when we were imagining how to tell the stories of James, Stewart, Mahomes, Osaka and Duvernay-Tardif. Turning athletic fame into a platform for social activism—that’s a journey Abdul-Jabbar knows well. And so we asked him to reflect on the impact and accomplishments of another Sportsperson coming off a Lakers championship and Finals.
The parallels between Abdul-Jabbar (No. 1 on the NBA’s all-time points list) and James (No. 3 and rising) only begin there. Likewise, each of our Sportsperson honorees is being recognized this year by one of their athletic and activist forebears, someone who started down a similar road years before. Martina Navratilova, the great tennis champion and social activist, on Osaka. Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, on Mahomes. Megan Rapinoe, our 2019 Sportsperson of the Year and an outspoken advocate of equal rights, on Stewart. Jenny Thompson, an eight-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer turned doctor, on Duvernay-Tardif. Their essays are more than appreciations by fellow champions. They’re a reminder of the ties between eras. Sports and challenges change, but the standards for greatness on and off the field are recognizable across generations.
There’s also something to be said for fresh perspectives, which brings us to the SOTY franchise’s magazine cover artwork. The portraits of our SOTYs are the work of Alexis Franklin, a 24-year-old digital painter from Dallas. Art isn’t even Franklin’s day job; she works full-time as a videographer for her church. But she gained renown earlier this year for her stunning covers of Anita Hill (Time) and Breonna Taylor (O, The Oprah Magazine); we felt the emotion and depth she conveys by infusing an ancient art form with cutting-edge technology would perfectly capture the spirit of our honorees. As you can see from the finished products (and to borrow from Abdul-Jabbar): Franklin and her objective have become one.
The issues and challenges of 2020 will no doubt still be there in 2021 and beyond. But our Sportspersons of the Year set an example of how to face and one day fix them. With principle. With passion. And with an athlete’s optimism—the belief that no matter the obstacles, better days are ahead. James could have been speaking for all of them when, three days after the election, he lauded Black voters for helping drive record turnout. “We just tipping off,” he tweeted. “I promise you I’m here for y’all throughout!”
2020 Sportsperson of the Year Winners
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Already a contender for GOAT, an advocate for racial equality and the founder of a school for low-income children, James—also the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award winner—put his considerable energy into inspiring young people to go to the ballot box in the face of voter suppression.
by Megan Rapinoe
When the moment came for Stewart to take a stand, the WNBA superstar and Finals MVP didn’t hesitate. Her support of Black Lives Matter never wavered, from the season’s opening tip to the Storm’s title celebration.
by Doug Williams
A Super Bowl victory—complete with game MVP trophy—cemented his status as the NFL’s top player, but it’s what Mahomes has done off the field since that’s elevated him to a new level of importance.
by Martina Navratilova
Not known for being comfortable as a public figure off the court, Osaka, the U.S. Open champion, came to understand the power of her fame, then wielded it in eye-catching ways to confront racial injustice and police violence.
by Jenny Thompson
He was the starting right guard for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. But he’s also a doctor, and when the pandemic came, Duvernay-Tardif traded in his uniform and cleats for medical scrubs.