Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 6, 2019

The Hero Of The Year

There are many traditions associated with the turn of the calendar from one year to the next, from champagne toasts to watching a Waterford Crystal orb make its 141-foot descent down a pole atop the 25-story building at One Times Square as the final minute of the old year is counted down. For sports fans, the familiar year end rituals also include tracking the announcements by various organizations of the athlete of the year.

Though not the oldest such award, Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year is surely the most familiar of these honorifics. First bestowed upon Roger Bannister in 1954, the year the British running legend produced the first sub-four-minute mile, the magazine’s year-end cover has been graced by athletes across the broad spectrum of sports, from the broadly popular like baseball and football to niche competitions like speed skating and cycling. The SI award was given exclusively to men for nearly two decades, until tennis great Billie Jean King shared the 1972 honor with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. After winning 487 races in 1977 and becoming the first jockey to win $6 million in a single season, 17-year-old Steve Cauthen became the first and still only thoroughbred rider to win the award. Had the editors waited until the following year, when Cauthen rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown, they might have been tempted to have a non-human winner share the prize with the jockey.

Of course, hindsight being twenty-twenty, it’s likely that the magazine’s decision makers wouldn’t mind a couple of do-overs. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire seemed like obvious choices after their home run chase captivated millions in 1998, a few years before the extent of steroids use throughout the Great Game became widely known. For much the same reason the recognition given to Lance Armstrong in 2002 now rings hollow.

This year Sports Illustrated singled out an entire team, honoring the Golden State Warriors by declaring the reigning NBA champions “a generational phenomenon, the likes of which we might not see again for decades, if at all.” The magazine cited not just the Warriors’ three championship in the last four years, but also the franchise’s “commitment to service, community and the importance of taking a stand on matters beyond basketball.” From head coach Steve Kerr to superstar point guard Stephen Curry and on down the roster, the Warriors have joined with others in the NBA in their willingness to speak out on social and political issues.

Golden State is a worthy pick, and perhaps it’s a good thing SI didn’t wait any longer to recognize the Warriors. As this is written they are in third place in the Western Conference standings, trailing both the improbable Denver Nuggets and the less surprising Oklahoma City Thunder. Aside from those two, three Eastern Conference teams also sport better records than Golden State as the NBA regular season approaches its halfway point. Still the Warriors are in no danger of missing the playoffs, so there is plenty of time between now and June for Curry and company to regain their dominant form.

But perhaps Golden State’s very good but not overwhelming performance in the current NBA campaign was one of the reasons why Sports Illustrated stood alone in naming the Warriors as 2018’s top sportsperson. The Associated Press, which has named both a male and female Athlete of the Year since 1931, picked LeBron James, formerly the Warriors’ nemesis in Cleveland and now a divisional rival in L.A., for the third time and Serena Williams for the fifth. The latter choice was somewhat surprising, since Williams failed to win a grand slam tournament in 2018 and was last seen melting down in a straight set loss to Naomi Osaka at the U.S. Open final. But she overcame serious complications from her pregnancy to even make it back to competitive play and surprised many by advancing to the finals both in New York and earlier at Wimbledon. For its part cable network ESPN honored the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and snowboarder and Olympic gold medalist Chloe Kim with the Best Male and Female Athlete ESPY Awards.

Ultimately all these award winners are legitimate, either for specific accomplishments during the past year, or for a resume of achievement over their careers. They won championships and medals, broke records and spoke out on issues of the day. Yet for all their spectacular exploits, not one of the athletes named above had the impact on their respective sport in 2018 as did a young woman who spent not a single minute in athletic competition, a former gymnast who had not been called upon to demonstrate her balance, strength, coordination and flexibility in more than fifteen years.

We now know that Dr. Lawrence Nassar, for more than eighteen years the national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics while also treating scores of injured athletes at Michigan State University, used his position of power to systematically and repeatedly molest hundreds of young woman and girls who came into his care. We know that not because of action taken by USA Gymnastics, or the United States Olympic Committee, or officials on the MSU campus in East Lansing. All those institutions failed the scores of victims, choosing instead to ignore reports of abuse, bury attempts at investigation, and conveniently fail to alert law enforcement. Not that taking that last step would have ensured Nassar was exposed. Even the FBI, when informed of accusations against Nassar in 2015, proceeded to slow walk an investigation into the doctor’s crimes.

Rather Nassar’s long overdue undoing was started by a single victim who refused to be silenced. Rachael Denhollander, who just turned 34 in early December, was a club gymnast as a teenager, and was sent to Nassar for treatment of a back injury. As he did to so many others, Nassar used his time alone with the young girl to sexually abuse her. But sixteen years after he did so, Denhollander, now an attorney, chose to fight back. She lodged a complaint with the MSU police, filed a Title IX suit against the University, and, most important, went public by sharing her story with reporters from the Indianapolis Star.

As Denhollander told the New York Times last winter, “it wasn’t something I wanted to do because of the fear and the risk behind it, but it was something I knew I had to do. I didn’t want Larry Nassar to hurt one more child. I felt a responsibility to at least try to stop him.”

Denhollander’s courage, and her refusal to be silenced, opened the floodgates, with more than 300 victims coming forward so far. Nassar is in prison, likely for the rest of his life. Michigan State entered into a $500 million settlement with the victims, USA Gymnastics has filed for bankruptcy, trying to survive the hundreds of lawsuits filed against the organization, and it is now a federal crime to fail to report sexual assault in any Olympic sport. When Nassar was sentenced last January, Denhollander was the last of 156 women to give a victim impact statement.

While not named the year’s top athlete, Denhollander was honored, along with other Nassar survivors, with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s, and Sports Illustrated named her the Inspiration of the Year. We fans often refer to our idols on the field as heroes, a term that anoints them with powers far beyond our own. But the easy use of the word ultimately diminishes it, and we forget what true heroism really looks like. It looks like Rachael Denhollander.


Responses

  1. Spot on, Mike. Here’s to those who stand up for what they believe in, regardless of their stats/score on the board. They are role models on and off the field, active or retired.
    Ω


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