'Activist Athlete': Why LeBron, Stewie, Mahomes, Osaka, Duvernay-Tardif were named SI Sportsperson of 2020

·8 min read

Sports Illustrated announced its annual Sportsperson of the Year award and for only the fifth time since it began in 1954 it went to a group of athletes. It is only the second time the award has gone to a group of different athletes who are not on the same team.

The magazine awarded the 2020 title to “The Activist Athlete” and named LeBron James, Breanna Stewart, Patrick Mahomes, Naomi Osaka and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif as its winners. All five won a championship in their respective leagues and have used their voices and broad platforms to bring attention to inequality.

Previous group winners include the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, the 2004 Boston Red Sox and the 2018 Golden State Warriors. In 1987 the magazine awarded it to a group of eight athletes dubbed “Athletes Who Care.”

Each of 2020’s five winners were honored with an article written by a fellow athlete featuring their year as “champions on the field, champions for others off it,” as the editors wrote in Sunday’s announcement.

“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,” the editors wrote.

The cover artwork of each athlete was done by Alexis Franklin, a 24-year-old digital painter from Dallas who drew Anita Hill for “Time” and Breonna Taylor for “O, The Oprah Magazine” earlier this year.

Here is more on each Sportsperson of the Year and what their activism has looked like in 2020.

LeBron James helped get out vote in historic election

James, who helped the Los Angeles Lakers win their 17th championship in October, was named a Sportsperson of the Year for a record third time. The four-time NBA champion won it in 2012 and 2016. He’s also the 2020 Muhammad Ali Legacy Award winner.

“It is the mark of LeBron’s greatness that even though he had gotten his slice of the pie, he refused to let others in need struggle on their own,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote for SI of James. “He has never stopped trying to make America become the nation it was envisioned to be. It is an enormous act of patriotism for African Americans to love a country that doesn’t love them back.”

James started the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, in 2018 and has continued to build it out in helping students from low-income families. This year he founded More Than a Vote to inspire young people, specifically Black people, to vote and helped fight voter suppression. More voters turned out this election season than any other in American history.

He spoke with President Barack Obama on the NBA moving forward in the wake of a walk-out during the playoffs after the shooting of Jacob Blake. It sparked the sports world to shut down for a night in late August after it had finally started back up again during the pandemic. He’s been vocal in issue of justice, speaking out multiple times on headline issues and the verdicts in the Breonna Taylor case. And he continues to produce films and shows based on the Black experience, its history and the focus on social justice.

Breanna Stewart came off Achilles tear to win title, champion justice

LeBron James arms raised on court.
LeBron James won an NBA championship and helped more people vote than ever before in American history. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Stewart was in the midst of one of the most incredible year-long runs of any basketball player in history when she tore her Achilles in a EuroLeague game in April 2019. This year the 2018 WNBA MVP returned to the court with Team USA and then with the Seattle Storm at a bubble site in Bradenton, Florida.

The Storm won the 2020 WNBA championship and Stewart was named Finals MVP for a second time. She was also a leading voice in social justice, giving a big-time name to the issue.

USWNT star Megan Rapinoe wrote on Stewart for SI:

“She realizes she has an opportunity to be more than what she is on the court—and also, as a white player in a predominantly Black league, to be an ally, or accomplice. Not a lot of white athletes have done that in the past: said their cause is my cause, and I’m as willing to fight for it as they are.”

Stewart, the Storm and the rest of the WNBA players were some of the first to support Rev. Warnock in the special Senate race in Georgia. It came after Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, appointed to the Senate seat late last year, lambasted the league for its support of Black Lives Matter. It could be what flips the Senate as its one of two Georgia races going to a special election.

Patrick Mahomes makes NFL take notice of social change

It seems like ages ago, but Mahomes started the year by leading the Kansas City Chiefs to its first Super Bowl victory in half a century. He signed a massive contract, got engaged, announced a baby was on the way. And he continues to produce incredible throws on a weekly basis.

He also used his platform and joined the “Black Lives Matter” video by NFL stars. His inclusion in that video is what caused commissioner Roger Goodell to take notice and respond with his own message.

Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, penned the Mahomes article and wrote:

That video helped change how the NFL views the social justice movement. This fall, his 15 and the Mahomies Foundation split the cost of new voting machines in Kansas City with the Chiefs. He understands the issue of voter suppression in America. He wanted to make sure that people had an opportunity for a fair election—that whoever you support, you just get the chance to vote.

The Chiefs and Mahomes’s foundation split the combined $100,000 cost to open Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium as a voting place to help more people safely vote during the pandemic.

Naomi Osaka uses US Open platform to raise awareness

Naomi Osaka won her third Grand Slam title at the US Open in September. The 22-year-old came back from a first-set defeat to lift the trophy and took her celebratory trophy photos in an African style dress and headwrap.

Osaka used her platform at the US Open to raise awareness of racial justice. She wore seven different masks, one for each competition, that honored a Black victim of police violence.

“On her own, she brought so much attention to their stories,” tennis great Martina Navratilova wrote for SI.Naomi’s not someone you can dismiss as just a liberal whatever. This wasn’t political. She was humanizing the enormous problem of police violence against Black people in America. This was about fairness. This was about human rights.”

The masks came a week after Osaka said she would not play her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open as part of the sports-wide strike. All tennis matches that day were then postponed.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Super Bowl winner and doctor

Starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014, then balanced football and medical school to obtain his degree in 2018. And in 2020 the starting right guard won a Super Bowl only to opt-out of a potential repeat so he could join another front line. The medical one.

Dr. Jenny Thompson, a 12-time Olympic medaling swimmer, wrote of the camaraderie between herself and another doctor/athlete for SI:

“We also need more people like Laurent. Most who go into medicine do so because they love science, sure, but also because they love people and humanity, because they want to make a difference in the world. Clearly, that is coming through for him right now, as he forgoes the glory inherent in defending a Super Bowl title to help his fellow humans, to wade back onto the front lines and fight COVID-19 at that long-term care facility in Quebec, while also studying public health at Harvard.”

The Chiefs (11-1) are battling the Pittsburgh Steelers for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. They clinched a sixth consecutive playoff berth on Sunday.

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