The past 12 months were accursed, and they were acclaimed. They were at times sad and joyful and, without a doubt, "yuge." They provided moments of profound joy and robbed us of living legends. Stars were born, and others approached rock bottom; curses died, and miracles came to life. A few names stood at the center of it all.
These are not all stars, nor saints. They are not necessarily the best athletes, nor even the most decorated. Instead they are those that most captivated the sports world, the figures from whom we could not look away -- even if we tried -- and whose stories defined the year. For better or worse, these were the faces that filled our printed pages, TV screens and social streams. And for reasons both sad and celebratory, they will always be worth remembering.
These are the Washington Post's Sports Figures of the Year for 2016.
U.S. Olympic Swim Team
Wedged between the major-party conventions and the presidential election, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics provided Americans a 17-day respite from the bitter divisiveness and politicized vitriol of this election season. If only Rio could have lasted forever. What we saw there, once again, was that any contest staged on fields, courts, tracks or courses, or in pools, open water or rings, is better than one decided through debates, fundraising, media buys, ground games and electoral votes. Seeing our polarized politics grow even worse since Rio’s closing ceremony, can Americans ever hope to be as united again as we were when we delighted at the parade of red-, white-, and blue-bedecked athletes, most of them swimmers, standing atop the medal stand in Brazil?
Team USA won 46 gold medals in Rio, 19 more than any other nation, and more than a third of them — 16 — were won by its swim team. And of those 16, twice as many as the Americans had won at the 2015 World Championships, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky were responsible for nine — five individually and four as part of relays. For the eight days of the Olympic swim meet, Ledecky and Phelps were unbeatable, unavoidable and impossible not to embrace — the former with her humility out of the water and her indefatigable, machine-like efficiency in it, and the latter with his ageless power, his story of redemption and his baby boy, Boomer, in his mother’s arms in the stands.
Phelps-Ledecky 2016 (or should it be Ledecky-Phelps?) was a winning ticket this summer. All it needed was a slogan. (Anyone know whether “Make America Great Again” is taken?) Phelps, already the most decorated Olympian in history at age 31, came out of retirement to win five more gold medals, and six overall, to push his career totals to 23 and 28, in many cases beating swimmers a generation younger who had grown up idolizing him. Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Ledecky won four golds (five medals overall) and set world records in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyles, the 12th and 13th such marks of her career. In the latter race, she prevailed by an astounding 11.38 seconds, the margin too big to get both Ledecky and runner-up Jazz Carlin of Great Britain in the same television shot as Ledecky touched the wall.
The U.S. swim team also had plenty of compelling downballot races. America got to know Simone Manuel, the Stanford sprinter who became the first female African American swimmer in history to win an individual gold medal, a tie in the 100 free. We got reacquainted with Anthony Ervin, the eccentric, 35-year-old sprinter who won Olympic golds in the same event, the 50 free, 16 years apart. We saw Maya DiRado score four medals, including two golds, then walk away from the sport and into corporate America.
The Summer Olympics and the U.S. presidential election are always linked by their shared quadrennial cycles. But this year, at least thematically, they were sometimes hard to tell apart — except that one made you want to stand up in your living room and shout “USA! USA!” and the other made you want to vomit.
Undue influence by the Russians? Yep. Though there were no cyberattacks reported in Rio, a major Russian doping scandal broke in the days and weeks leading up to the opening ceremony, hovering over the competition. One of the indelible images of Rio 2016 was of Lilly King, the fiery, 19-year-old Indiana breaststroker, wagging her finger at Russia’s Yulia Efimova, a former world champion suspended in 2013 for doping, then torching her in the pool to win gold in the 100 breast and calling her a drug cheat on NBC afterward.
A well-known playboy and reality TV star with strangely colored hair — in this case, a sudden coat of silver — who sometimes has a difficult time telling the truth? Check. The night the Rio swim meet ended, Team USA veteran Ryan Lochte, whose only trip to the medal stand was a relay gold, took three teammates out for a night on the town, which ended, in the wee hours the following morning, with a confrontation at a gas station with armed security guards — an incident that went from an unfortunate episode to an international scandal after Lochte concocted a phony story about an armed robbery. Formerly the star of E!’s “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” the 32-year-old, the second-most-decorated male Olympic swimmer in history behind Phelps, revised his story and apologized to the Brazilian people for preying on their worst stereotypes, but still lost all his major sponsors.
Much as the loser of a presidential contest does, the winners of Team USA faded slowly from our consciousness in the months following Rio, as we turned our attention to the start of football season and the baseball playoffs. Ledecky went off to college at Stanford, where she became Manuel’s teammate on an NCAA juggernaut. Phelps threw himself into retirement and being a dad. (For his part, Lochte, the one swimmer everyone wished would go away, showed up on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”)
But at times over these past few months, Phelps has found himself confronted with a three-word phrase that reflects not only his historical, sustained greatness but also our collective desire to hold on to the feeling that Rio left in us, as everything else about our country seemed to be turning so divisive:
“Four more years!” the nation cries. “Four more years!”
By the time the ex-Green Beret met with the anti-oppression solider, Nate Boyer had already developed a feeling: Colin Kaepernick had no idea how loud his silent protest would become.
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback had, before three preseason games, kept his seat during the national anthem in a silent protest of the rising number of African Americans being shot and killed by police. Kaepernick was a famous face and a franchise player in a league that emphasizes the avoidance of individualism. And yet he was applying a demonstrative jolt to a pregame ceremony seen as precious and, by many, untouchable.
“It's something that can unify this team. It's something that can unify this country,” Kaepernick told reporters in late August, though for better or worse it did no such thing.
In fact, Kaepernick initiated a national debate, a man who stood up by sitting down, and in the months since — in early September Kaepernick began kneeling, rather than sitting, and he has done so for every game since — it has made us think and made us angry. It has forced NFL fans to think critically about the acts that make for an effective protest (and an effective messenger) and, in some cases, whether it’s even worth following a league that would tolerate what many see as disrespect.
So inspired by Kaepernick’s bold action were some fellow athletes, ranging from those in youth, high school and college, both inside and outside of football, that they followed his lead. So repulsed were some observers that they blamed an early-season television ratings dip on Kaepernick’s audacity. A lanky and athletic quarterback with a fascinating personal story, Kaepernick had become a superstar four years ago while leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl; now he had sparked a fierce, polarizing discussion that transcended sport and industry, politics and age.
President Obama said the 29-year-old quarterback was “exercising his constitutional right” to protest; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg called Kaepernick “dumb and disrespectful”; Navy Adm. Harris Harris, speaking at a ceremony this month honoring the Pearl Harbor dead, said that those killed 75 years prior “never took a knee” when the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played. Kaepernick appeared on an October cover of Time magazine; he said he also received death threats.
Boyer was there near the beginning. An Army veteran who later suited up as a long snapper at the University of Texas and, for one preseason game in 2015, as a 34-year-old rookie for the Seattle Seahawks, Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick in late August. The Army Times published it.
“Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger,” Boyer wrote, “I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.”
Kaepernick’s representatives invited Boyer to meet in September before the 49ers’ final preseason game. They spoke, Boyer said, but, more than that, they listened. The men emerged, and, side-by-side on the San Francisco sideline, Kaepernick knelt and Boyer stood as the anthem was performed. They vowed to stay in touch, to maintain open minds and begin building a bridge that could, in time, span a gulf that divided the nation.
“It was heading,” Boyer said in a recent interview, “in the right direction.”
Then months passed. Kaepernick kept kneeling. A few peers joined him; others, including some entire teams, adopted other symbolic gestures to come together in the name of racial unity. Observers took sides: Was this a spoiled celebrity exploiting his platform? Or was he proving, like trailblazers before him, that the most effective demonstrations are the ones that make the community uncomfortable or enraged enough to act? Kaepernick and Boyer nevertheless texted occasionally, exchanging ideas and thoughts.
Then, the gulf seemed to widen. Photographs emerged of Kaepernick wearing socks depicting police officers as pigs, and though he would say he wore them before beginning his public stance, it nonetheless undermined his readiness to carry such a mantle. He appeared at a news conference, ostensibly to talk about an anti-oppression message, wearing a T-shirt showing Malcolm X in a meeting with the former Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro — a shirt that led a Cuban-born columnist for the Miami Herald to refer in print to Kaepernick as an “unrepentant hypocrite.”
In Kaepernick’s response, according to comments quoted by the Herald, he clumsily defended a few of Castro’s policies; he therefore showed a limited understanding of — or, maybe more revealing, a refusal to educate himself fully on — the kinds of human-rights issues he had come to represent. Was he a football player or an activist, a little of both but committed to neither, a permanent resident of the in-between?
Kaepernick, whom the 49ers did not make available for an interview for this article, had at least gotten people talking. It inspired others to take their own stands. Which, he has indicated, was part of the point. One of the perhaps unintended topics has become how these past few months will affect — or endanger — his NFL career. Kaepernick’s middling play, massive contract and the fact that, more than any other sports league, the NFL avoids distractions and the players who cause them, combine to make him a radioactive figure.
Boyer, who communicated with Kaepernick throughout most of the autumn, paid attention. He winced at Kaepernick’s missteps and questioned whether the quarterback remained as open-minded as he had been during their meeting. Boyer wondered whether, in fact, their discussion had been nothing more than a political stunt.
“At the time I didn't feel like that,” Boyer said. “I felt like that was real.”
“I haven’t seen a bridge built,” he said. “And the only way we're going to get anywhere, we have to build bridges. You can't just shout and complain and expect everyone else to fix the problem. That doesn't fix the problem. It hasn't ever.”
Still, Boyer said, he kept reaching out to Kaepernick and trying to reach across the gulf. Boyer said that before this November, he had never voted in any election. But in the weeks prior, Boyer came to believe there was symbolism in his appearance at the polls, that, if he sat out the election, he wouldn’t seem committed to this or any other cause.
And so he did, taking a political stand for the first time in his life, not because of a proclivity to a particular candidate but because of what the act itself represented. Not long after, Boyer learned Kaepernick hadn’t voted. The quarterback explained that participating in a broken system would’ve been hypocritical.
A flimsy reason, Boyer said, and a disappointing conclusion to this.
“If policy is what you want to see changed,” Boyer said, “the first way to be a part of that is to vote on them.”
It made Boyer question whether Kaepernick himself was truly committed to the movement he started, or whether, as Boyer suspected months ago, the quarterback had no idea what he had gotten himself into.
Months after Kaepernick started a national conversation, it goes on — sides taken, lines drawn, positions defended. But another conversation has ended. Boyer said he and Kaepernick, for all the promises and efforts, haven’t spoken in months.
VIDEO: Why _______ is the sports figure of 2016
LeBron James has been the face of the NBA for the better part of a decade now. His incredible combination of physical gifts, mental alacrity and unmatched durability has made him the bedrock of the league ever since he carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals as a 22-year-old in 2007.
But the reason James reclaimed his mantle as the standard-bearer for the sport in 2016 wasn’t just because of following through on the thing he seemed all but destined to do when drafted first overall by the Cavaliers in 2003. While ending Cleveland’s half-century title drought in the most thrilling of fashions this past June certainly captivated the nation, it also was because of James’s willingness to use his place as one of the most influential and recognizable people in this country to try to advance causes in which he believes.
The on-court story speaks for itself. When James announced he was returning to the Cavaliers as a free agent in 2014, he explained that his decision was made because he had come to understand what Northeast Ohio — the place where he was born and raised — meant to him.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given,” James wrote in Sports Illustrated. “Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
The challenge was obvious: bringing home a championship and, in doing so, erasing a half-century of heartache. James came close in his first season back in Cleveland, falling short with an injury-plagued roster in the 2015 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors. But then the challenge seemed to grow even tougher. The Warriors won a record 73 games in 2015-16 and pulled within a single victory of completing what would have been the greatest season in NBA history, leading the Cavaliers three games to one in the 2016 Finals.
But then James took over. He posted 41 points in both Game 5 and 6, filling up virtually every line on the box score and setting up a winner-take-all Game 7 back in Oakland.
And in that game, with history on the line, James delivered as only he could. Not only did he register a triple-double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) to lead Cleveland to the first comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in NBA Finals history, but he produced what will become the signature play of his career — an unbelievable chase-down block of Andre Iguodala’s seemingly wide-open fast-break layup that would have given Golden State the lead with 100 seconds remaining.
It was a moment that summed up everything that has made James so special: his superhuman athletic ability combined with the ability to always find himself in the right position to make the right play.
When the game ended, James began sobbing, as a lifetime’s worth of expectations lifted from his broad shoulders, the last line item crossed off from the checklist of spectacular feats he seemed predestined to achieve.
But rather than rest, satisfied with his work, he added new items to it, new causes.
Limiting James’s accomplishments in 2016 to the basketball court would shortchange the impact he’s had. At the ESPYs in July, he stood onstage with friends Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony and called on other athletes to join him in using their platform to enact change.
“Tonight, we’re honoring Muhammad Ali, the GOAT,” he said. “But to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, 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.”
James has put his stature, and his money, behind those statements. He donated $2.5 million to support an exhibit honoring Ali at the Smithsonian's new museum of African American history. He has worked in his hometown of Akron, Ohio for years, creating scholarship funds to send countless students from disadvantaged backgrounds to college. He went out and actively campaigned for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the weeks and days leading up to the election — and recently refused to stay at a Donald Trump hotel in New York.
All are signs of a man who is more than comfortable in his own skin, one who knows he has the ability to shape the course of events both on and off the court. And that is why the basketball world in 2016 belonged to LeBron James.
In the February sunshine, a blinding Arizona day can seem impossibly far from a murky Midwestern night in November, with one day changing to the next. But Theo Epstein sat in the shade in Mesa, Ariz., and considered the promise of his Chicago Cubs and the eight months ahead.
“There’s so much to go through just to get to that position, where if things break your way you can compete in the postseason,” Epstein said. “I look no further than that.”
Now, as 2016 closes, Epstein can look wherever he damn well pleases. Because his Cubs created their own breaks and won the team’s first World Series since 1908, Epstein has secured his position not only as baseball’s most important figure of the year but as one of the transcendent characters in the history of the sport.
Feel like hyperbole? He stood at the helm of the Boston Red Sox, as the general manager, when they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, and that alone might have been enough to get to Cooperstown. Now, he stands at the helm of the Cubs, as the president of baseball operations, following their first World Series title in 108 years.
But what makes Epstein’s accomplishments more distinctive are the paths he took to build the two championship teams. The Red Sox and Cubs were analogous in their long droughts, desperate fan bases, cherished little ballparks and ties to curses, be they of the Bambino or billy goat variety.
When Epstein became the GM in Boston before the 2003 season, he was 28. He inherited, as he admitted, a “Hall of Fame core,” what with Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez and others already in place. He augmented it, for sure, adding David Ortiz and eventually Curt Schilling to the 2004 team, the team that came back from a three-games-to-none deficit against the Yankees, then swept the Cardinals in the World Series.
“It’s kind of like guitar-playing,” said Epstein, a noted ax man. “It felt like the band that’s just starting to come together and hit it big, starting to get bigger crowds, but they’re still driving around in their van and they’re open-minded and optimistic and almost naive because all the noise hadn’t caught up with them yet. And then things get more complicated in a hurry.”
They got complicated enough that, following the 2011 season, Epstein left the Red Sox, the team he rooted for as a boy, and landed with the Cubs. But what he orchestrated in Chicago wasn’t a tweak. Rather, it was a complete overhaul — not just of personnel but of attitude and expectations, of the way a franchise and its fan base thought about itself.
Now, with the Cubs’ unforgettable 8-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the seventh game of the World Series secured — the DVD sure to be the most popular stocking-stuffer in the state of Illinois — it can seem as if this were all a natural progression. But remember that Epstein’s first Cubs team lost 101 games, his next 96. It was all part of the plan, because, each year, he and his top surrogates — General Manager Jed Hoyer and player-development maven Jason McLeod — dealt veterans for prospects, suffering in the present while trying to maintain faith in the future.
“Just disappointing people, letting people down — that’s hard,” Epstein said. “To do it to fans who are paying a lot of money to come to the games and get attached to the players, and beyond where we are in the standings, just want to see the team play well that night and win and have a good time — it was hard to go through as someone who’s competitive, but it’s also hard to watch people not enjoy themselves as we went through it.”
Last year, the Cubs won 97 games, beat the Pirates in the wild-card game, then the Cardinals in the division series before being swept out of the National League Championship Series by the Mets. This year, they arrived in Mesa as prohibitive favorites, led wire-to-wire, won 103 games, beat the Giants in four games, the Dodgers in six and, eventually, came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Indians.
That night, after he and Hoyer and McLeod and their entire front office took a group photo with the World Series trophy, Epstein stood on the mound at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. It was cold, and rain was falling. He seemed unaffected, even relishing the scene, the mood, the accomplishment.
“What makes a great organization is a thousand little sacrifices that people make when no one’s looking,” Epstein said, and then he considered what those sacrifices had wrought for the Cubs, for Chicago.
“The effect on so many people and generations, bringing families together, thinking of people who didn’t make it,” he said. “Thinking of Ernie [Banks], thinking of Ronnie [Santo]. Thinking of Billy Williams, who will be celebrating with us. The ’69 team. The ’84 team. The 2003 team. All these teams that were great and could have gotten it done but just didn’t have the bounces on their side. Well, now we got it done, and everyone’s going to sleep happy tonight.”
Because of Epstein and his crew, all of Chicago could sleep happy all winter. And when spring comes, and he returns to the blinding brightness of Arizona, Epstein will have transformed baseball once again — into a sport in which the Chicago Cubs are the defending world champions.
The question seems silly — borderline insane, these days — but last December it echoed throughout the hockey world because a season of utter dominance started in sluggish fashion: "What's wrong with Sidney Crosby?”
Last December, Crosby found himself in foreign territory, an uncomfortable place, one in which he had seldom dwelled during his 12 years in and atop the National Hockey League. He was in the midst of the biggest point-scoring slump of his career; through 28 games, he had amassed just 19 points. He had clunked through the first month of October, failing to tally a single point in nine of the Penguins' first 11 games. November was barely better, as he averaged 0.83 points per game, compared to a career rate of 1.32. And during that drought came a downpour of questions, all of them some variation on the above.
Was it the coach's system? An injured wrist? Was age already catching up? Was it the aftereffects of the concussions that had troubled him so much five years earlier?
All of that led to the darkest question of all: Could Crosby, heir to the mantle of the Great One, ever be great again?
Over the next 12 months, Crosby provided a resounding answer with a triple trophy rebuke: his second Stanley Cup, a playoff MVP award and the World Cup of Hockey.
Crosby's darkest days on the ice have given way to some of his most brilliant. Since Jan. 1, Crosby is averaging 1.53 points per game, 0.21 points higher than his career average. And that doesn't count the NHL postseason, nor the World Cup.
We asked. He answered. But then, in October, he stumbled on what should have been a victory lap.
Just before the start of the season, before the Penguins raised their latest Stanley Cup banner, it was revealed that Crosby would miss the start of the season because of a concussion.
The questions started anew, prompted by a career's worth of concussion concerns that sidelined him for parts of two seasons. Once again, it was uncertain whether Crosby would be diverted from his seemingly preordained path of greatness. Once again, Crosby delivered a powerful rebuttal.
Not only did he return to the ice in late October, but through Dec. 18, he led the NHL with 21 goals, nearly doubling his career goals-per-game average to 0.81 per game.
And now, following a year in which he vanquished his personal rival, Alex Ovechkin (again), added a championship ring (again) and carried his country to glory (again), one final query: Did Sidney Crosby own the hockey world in 2016?
The 2015-16 English Premier League season began like all the others, with the goliaths of the game tracking trophies and the rest of the field wrestling over scraps and looking to avoid relegation.
For 20-plus years, the race had stayed true to form as four clubs from Manchester and London hoarded the hardware every spring. Without the checks and balances of American-style salary caps and drafts, the moneyed class always won out.
Who ya got: Arsenal or Manchester United? Neither? Okay. Chelsea or Manchester City. then. Maybe Liverpool or Tottenham’s time had come again.
Leicester City, you say? Pfff. The Foxes would be back in their lower-division pen before long. Bookmakers set their odds of winning the league at 5,000 to 1. Frankly, you’d be tossing away good pound sterling. Consider: The Cleveland Browns began this NFL season 200 to 1 to win the Super Bowl.
Lo and behold, the East Midlands, English soccer and international sports were swept up in an implausible nine-month journey.
“Why can't we continue to run, run, run?” Claudio Ranieri, Leicester’s Italian manager, said with a twinkle in his eye. “We are like Forrest Gump. Leicester is Forrest Gump.”
That 108-year wait by the Chicago Cubs? Leicester had been holding out hope for a top-flight championship ever since former pupils at Wyggerston School knocked around a ball in 1884 and decided to form a club.
There was an unmistakable fairy-tale quality to it.
Four years prior, Jamie Vardy, the star striker, had been playing in the fifth division. Before then, he was a part-time player who practiced twice a week after working shifts in a factory that made prosthetic limbs.
Riyad Mahrez, an Algerian winger, rose from the French seventh tier. Years later, when told Leicester was interested, he asked why a rugby team wanted him.
The captain, Wes Morgan, is an English-born defender who, through ancestry, represents Jamaica on the international scene. After the title was secure, an endorsement deal got his likeness on the label of rum bottles — in Leicester-blue pirate garb, of course.
The Foxes’ jersey sponsor is not a well-known automaker or electronics conglomerate; it’s a Thai-based company that operates duty-free shops. Its billionaire owner had bought the club in 2010. Despite ample resources, Leicester’s typical starting lineup cost one-tenth of 2014-15 champion Chelsea’s.
There was Ranieri, who was on his 16th coaching assignment in 29 years. His previous job was with the Greek national team. He lasted four months, sacked after losing to the Faroe Islands.
And there was a spooky tie to a monarch who died more than 500 years ago. In 2012, archaeologists had uncovered King Richard III’s bones under a Leicester parking lot. In spring 2015, he was reburied at a cathedral. Five months later, the soccer team began its championship odyssey.
Coincidence? “It has been said that we are somehow being repaid for burying Richard,” the mayor remarked.
Some Americans were tempted to compare Leicester’s staggering success to that of a low seed winning the NCAA basketball tournament. But the latter is a three-week sprint with six or seven games. Strange things can happen in a short competition.
The Foxes had to navigate 38 matches from August to May. The primary goal: stay afloat in England’s top tier and continue reaping the financial benefits of membership in the sports world’s most popular league. The championship was not a consideration.
Yet the race, in the end, wasn’t close. The Foxes assembled a 23-3-12 record, 10 points clear of Arsenal. Two defeats came to those Gunners, the other away to Liverpool. They lost one of their last 20 matches. A year earlier, they had finished 14th, 46 points behind Chelsea. The previous 10 seasons were spent in the second or third divisions.
How’d they pull it off? By letting their opponents have the ball. They were counterattackers, content to yield possession and make the most of their few opportunities with Vardy’s pace and finishing prowess.
The typically unpredictable Ranieri defied his nature — his derogatory nickname is “Tinkerman” — by retaining a consistent lineup.
Into the summer, Leicester celebrated the most fantastical upset season that soccer had ever seen. Soon, though, it was back to work — and back to the harsh realities of the Premier League.
As this winter arrived, the Foxes were in the bottom half of the 20-team table, just a few points safe from the relegation zone and miles behind front-running Chelsea.
Last season’s title, though, had yielded a place in the UEFA Champions League, a prestigious continental competition. And the Foxes won their mild group this fall and advanced to the round of 16.
Through it all, Ranieri’s words from last season have echoed through the club, the city and the sporting world.
“The people are dreaming," he said. "Keep dreaming.”
The athletes, aged 18 to 22 years, compelled us again in 2016, like they always do. Big-time college sports provided Kris Jenkins’s for-the-ages shot, Lamar Jackson’s breathtaking romps through ACC secondaries and Connecticut’s unparalleled excellence. They kept drawing us back, on February nights and fall Saturdays, in little college towns and sprawling cities, for both the comforting routines and the epic bursts.
Following and caring about an enterprise built on the cheap, unrepresented labor of college athletes requires a queasy compromise of certain moral underpinnings. Some carry gigantic societal implications: The state of Louisiana falls short of providing adequate education in meaningful ways, and over the next few years it will pay Les Miles more than $9 million not to coach its flagship university’s football team. Some are smaller and trivial: The agent’s runner making empty promises, the booster with $100 handshakes and, in a new (we think) entry, the shady assistant coach delivering prostitutes to a dorm room. Big and small have grown to seem normal, the cost of doing business, the decadent outgrowth of watching the athletes deliver the goods. It’s not right, but it’s how it is.
And then a man of Art Briles’s talents and flaws emerges, and we can only sputter: What is this? It can't be part of the deal, can it? We will accept a lot of seedy baggage to watch college sports. We have proven that, and made so many administrators and coaches and television executives filthy rich for it. But what went on at Briles’s Baylor program — is that not where we have to draw the line? Is that not both the symbol and byproduct of the rot and repulsion of college sports?
Over eight years as the head coach at Baylor, Briles turned a forgotten football program into a colossus. The school won conference championships, ran the highest-scoring, most electrifying offense in the country, claimed the 2011 Heisman Trophy and erected a $266 million stadium along the banks of the Brazos River. Briles’s teams became one of the greatest shows in the sport.
And while it happened, according to allegations made in lawsuits and a damning independent report by Pepper Hamilton, many members of his football team terrorized women on Baylor’s campus while campus officials reacted with indifference or hostility to accusers. By the reckoning of Baylor regents, according to the Wall Street Journal, 17 women reported sexual or domestic assaults involving 19 players, including four alleged gang rapes. Briles and his athletic director, Ian McCaw, were in charge. Based on various allegations, they either knew and turned a blind eye, knew and actively tried to stifle claims, or had no idea it was happening. Any one of those is reprehensible.
The explanation for how it could happen is simple. Baylor’s football team had never won much before, and when it started winning, nobody wanted the winning to stop.
"There was a cultural issue there that was putting winning football games above everything else, including our values,” J. Cary Gray, a member of the Baylor board of regents, told the Journal. "We did not have a caring community when it came to these women who reported that they were assaulted. And that is not okay.”
By year’s end, Briles remained unemployed. Houston, a school where he had previously coached, publicly declared it would not consider him a candidate to fill its opening, despite reports to the contrary. It did not stop some Baylor fans and boosters from agitating for his return. McCaw, the disgraced athletic director, surfaced in the same position at Liberty, despite pending litigation against him.
There have been other college sports scandals on the level Briles and his enablers allegedly perpetrated, and there will probably be more in the future. The athletes themselves will continue to bring us back, over and over. They provide thrills and pure competition, the impetus for tailgates and office pools. The rest of it will continue to dare us to draw a line, to answer hard questions, even though 2016 made it harder than ever to believe we ever will.
She came to the Olympic Games as an overwhelming favorite not just to win medals but to crush her sport, prepared to change its history with a spectacular signature move that bears her name.
Simone Biles wasn’t going to win merely on some pixie-like cuteness or surgical precision, although she is plenty capable of unleashing both. She arrived straight out of 2016, a powerful 19-year-old woman redefining the sport of girls with the smile and build of a teenager as well as the cool, determined focus of a sniper. She left Rio with four gold medals and a bronze in the balance beam, the only stumble in her South American quest.
Like Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps, Biles was that sports rarity, the athlete who came to the Olympics and was better than advertised. She brought home medals and left behind an indelible imprint on her sport with performances that combined power with grace. It would take something extraordinary to beat her, leaving her competitors to unveil moves with names such as "vault of death." It mattered little.
Biles's best was on display in Rio, where her enthusiasm and precision cemented her status outside the gymnastics community as a star, providing a welcome break from an Olympiad nearly hijacked by the misdeeds of Ryan Lochte. After the Games, her face was recognizable the world over, and for all the right reasons.
It was a fitting chapter in a well-publicized life story that includes being adopted by her grandparents — “Mom and Dad” to her — and being “discovered” by her coach in day care. By the time she got to Rio, her ascension to the top of the sport was accepted. As her teammate Aly Raisman pointed out when asked at what point she thought Biles was in control in the all-around final: “Everyone knew she was going to win, like, a couple of years ago.”
The only real debate left for Rio was whether she deserved the title of the best female in the history of her sport. Her three world championships would attest she is; her Olympic performance would seal that view, as would the endorsements of gymnastics royalty. Mary Lou Retton, the gold medalist in all-around and American darling from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, said Biles “may be the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life.” Martha Karolyi, the coach who helped develop Nadia Comaneci and Retton, called her the greatest female gymnast ever.
“[A]after this competition, when she was able to beat her teammate by two points and the next-ranked gymnast with four points, that’s a very big statement for her talent, for her work and for the quality of her work,” Karolyi said.
Biles emerged from Rio a full-blown celebrity, one whose crush on Zac Efron resulted in a meeting with the actor. Although she lives in Texas, she has Ohio ties and has the photos alongside giants such as LeBron James to show for it. She had endorsements before and more now, along with her own emoji — Simoji — and has been mistaken for teammate Gabby Douglas by a Hollywood actress, proving there are downsides. She could be forgiven for wanting to continue to exist in the world of sport-lebrity, but she has other plans. Just as she tweets inspiring and uplifting messages to over 870,000 followers, she remains driven herself.
“That girl has been that way from day one,” her mother, Nellie, told Texas Monthly. “She always, always wants to win. Wants to be the fastest runner, the best everything.”
In 2016, she was.