The urge to call a championship historic happens every year in just about every sport. Oftentime it’s a cheap way of granting unearned significance. In a way, the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series isn’t worth any more than, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks winning the ‘01 Series. It’s just another team winning a professional sports championship, albeit in a more dramatic way than most. The thing about the Cubs’ championship and the drought that it extinguished is that it imparted the sweep of history like few other events possibly could.
An NBA team blowing a 3-1 lead in The NBA Finals after a record 73 regular season wins and the first unanimous MVP? Perhaps that’s a set of circumstances that’s closer to historic. At the very least, history will record the crush of memes it produced. That collapse happening against a team from Cleveland only gave the Cavs victory and the Warriors loss added juice. Not only was one city’s lengthy championship skid over, the biggest star in the sport, LeBron James, completed a hometown reclamation project few thought he ever could, with a signature play that’s bound to be on the highlight reel of a Hall of Fame career.
Those with even the most casual following of major pro sports are familiar with the struggles of Cleveland in general and the Chicago Cubs in particular. The idea of the Cubs being perennial losers was so hardwired into American culture that its undoing of it might still be turning heads if it weren’t for the presidential election that transpired less than a week later. You might think the end of an interminable election season would dispel some of the tension of the past two years of campaigning, but such an easy conclusion would go against the extraordinarily destructive nature of the race.
Yet even among all the bickering between sides - and possibly even more so within sides - on the political spectrum, it appears a good chunk of the populace is ready to put politics behind them and search for distraction. You can see that in NFL viewership returning post-election to close to what it was in 2015. That was after the ratings dip accounted for an overwhelming amount of coverage of the first half of the 2016 regular season. Of course, the NFL wasn’t without forays into social issues.
Lovers of the status quo - or perhaps a state of the world slightly more regressive than the status quo - prefer to think of sports as an oasis from the larger issues of the day. That’s never exactly been true, though it was even less so in 2016, especially in the NFL, NBA, and WNBA.
Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest against police brutality and racial inequality was among the most compelling aspects of the first few months of the NFL season. That the NFL did nothing to interfere with his protest, or similar ones that he inspired, was surprising to those who consider the league draconian and forbidding, a rightful assumption given how strongly the NFL cracked down on any other sort of expression in 2016. Those who opposed Kaepernick were just as surprised and frustrated by the permissiveness. A vocal minority claimed they would boycott the NFL for not putting an end to it, though the ratings never bore out those threats.
Before Kaepernick’s protest began in August, players on several WNBA teams the month before wore black shirts during warmups honoring black men killed by police officers and repping the Black Lives Matter movement.
The WNBA soon threatened fines against the teams and specific players who took part, in amounts higher than for a standard uniform violation. Players on the New York Liberty, Washington Mystics, and Indiana Fever refused to answer reporters’ post-game questions unless they pertained to Black Lives Matter. About a week later, the WNBA caved, with president Lisa Borders announcing that the fines were canceled.
That same month, four of the biggest stars in the NBA - Chris Paul, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade - took to the stage at the ESPYS to deliver a call to action for athletes to speak up on social issues in the wake of a spate of incidents of police killing unarmed black men, and the mass shooting inside of an Orlando gay club. The players were on stage to honor Muhammad Ali, the recently passed boxing legend whose history of activism was one of the most decorated in sports.
Ali was one of several prominent sports figures who were lost in 2016, including Pat Summitt, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Craig Sager, John Saunders, Jose Fernandez, Dennis Green, Kimbo Slice, Buddy Ryan, Dave Mirra, and Nate Thurmond, among others.
As much as Ali’s memory was prominent in the protests that went on this year, there were reminders that sports can be a vehicle of dangerous privilege. Brock Turner, a former swimmer at Stanford, received a meager six-month sentence after being found guilty on three charges of sexually assaulting a woman. USA Swimming banned Turner for life during the outcry that followed Turner’s light sentencing, though the fact that Turner was an athlete was one of the things that led the judge to go easy on him.
The NFL landed itself in another domestic violence crisis in 2016, just two years after the league revamped its personal conduct policy to formalize punishment for domestic violence. The league ignored evidence and police reports related to Giants kicker Josh Brown and his wife. Brown was suspended just one game. When evidence surfaced of how the NFL ignored a second arrest, as well as additional incidents of violence, Brown was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list before being released by the Giants shortly thereafter. For all the vows and promises the NFL had done to get better, the league had failed with the same arrogance and laziness and disregard for life that has marked so much of the NFL’s behavior over the last decade.
Things came crashing down for Art Briles at Baylor after 17 women reported sexual or domestic assaults involving 19 players since 2011. Briles eventually was remorseful for what happened without going into great detail about what exactly was his fault. Meanwhile, several of his possible culpable assistants remain on staff at the program.
As in any other year, it was a mix of the high and the low. For all the chaos that was expected at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, it was a pleasant surprise when the biggest issue that came out was some discolored water in the pools. The Olympics and the IOC are a den of corruption no matter where they are doing business, though there was considerable joy to be found in the athletes, whether it was the dominance of swimmers like Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, or Simone Manuel, who became the first African-American female swimmer to win an Olympic medal in an individual event. Simone Biles and the Final Five made easy work of the gymnastics competition, winning a combined nine medals.
The allure wasn’t solely jingoistic for Americans. Viewers continued to marvel at the seemingly effortless dominance of Usain Bolt in his final Olympic games. The Jamaican became the first athlete to win three Olympic 100-meter golds.
Besides, it was best not to get too proud as an American given what Ryan Lochte did to cover up a late night of stupidity at a gas station in Rio. That he hopped on a plane back home, potentially leaving his teammates behind to be detained by Brazilian authorities was detestable, though it did provide for some amusing drama in what is generally a low point during the summer for sports.
Because the sports is so far-ranging, you could list banner moments for the year and always be missing something. Villanova closing out March Madness with a buzzer beater to capture the men’s basketball title is about as perfect a tourney moment as you can get. For the women, UConn’s obliteration of the competition left nothing to doubt. Their fourth consecutive national championship was a first for women’s basketball. Their 11th title tied them with UCLA’s men’s team for the most in Division I. Geno Auriemma passed John Wooden to be the only coach with 11 titles. They did this by making the shortest work of Syracuse in the final, to the tune of 82-51.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup, riding rookie goalie Matt Murray, and providing a measure of redemption for Phil Kessel, who for a while seemed fated to be a charming if marginal player for the extent of his career. The most triumphant underdogs of the year were Leicester City, who barely survived relegation to season before to win the Premier League at 5,000-to-1 odds. On the other end, there was Jordan Spieth, who looked like a lock to win his second consecutive Masters on a wire-to-wire victory, coming undone in the span of three hours on the back nine of the final round.
There’s more, so much that I could go on for several more pages and still be lacking in addressing several areas. There are endless events to be captivated by and to obsess over and what matters to you is ultimately as subjective as whether or not you thought 2016 was a bad year. I mean, it was objectively bad, but it might have been good to you personally. Nevertheless, I submit the two biggest conventional sports stories of the year were Cleveland and Chicago finally breaking free of their respective slumps. Athletes asserting their own agency and calling for larger societal change may not have been new to 2016, but they defined the year in sports like nothing else.