Pick up a copy of Sports Illustrated right now, and you’ll see their annual “Sportsperson of the Year” package. The first time the magazine gave the prize out, it went to Roger Bannister. Sandy Koufax won it, and so did Wayne Gretzky, Mary Lou Retton, and Michael Jordan. It’s an issue of the magazine that, in addition to being a cheap rip off of the Joey’s, typically glorifies the Jim McKay brand of sports: The thrill of victory! The agony of defeat! Look at the unbelievable feats human beings are capable of!

It was telling, then, that this year’s Sportsperson of the Year wasn’t given to someone who simply jumped high or ran fast or knocked out a heavyweight. “The Activist Athlete” was honored this year, with LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Naomi Osaka, Breanna Stewart, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif gracing the cover. What’s striking wasn’t SI’s decision to award those men and women but rather the predictability of it all. Who else could have won this year?

This is not going to be yet another column about how athletes have never, should never, and will never simply stick to sports. I’m not going to discuss the well-trodden history of Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I don’t want to rehash the debate over Colin Kaepernick. But if the goal of the 10EYS (I think I’ve settled on this way of naming these. Does it make any sense? I don’t really care) is to recap the last decade in sports, it’s impossible not to talk about increased role that athletes have played in demanding social justice. That, more than any championship, world record, and yes, even a Butt Fumble, is the legacy of the era. But how did it begin?

Most will point to Kaepernick as to the moment that ushered in this modern period of activism, but let’s travel back one year earlier, to 2015, to Columbia, MO. The University of Missouri was reeling after a series of racist incidents on campus and the school’s administration’s tepid response. A group of students camped outside of the president’s office, one of them going on a hunger strike, demanding the president’s resignation. Tensions were high, but this was a college campus after all. Righteous, angry students were the norm. They rarely, if ever, won.

Then the football team got involved. The Missouri Tigers had won the SEC East the previous two years and then, in the middle of their season, 31 of the team’s Black players stood arm in arm and tweeted a picture and statement: “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed.”

Two days later, he was gone. The team didn’t miss a game. But the message wasn’t soon forgotten. Those events showed what an impact athletes—even student athletes—could have on the world, how much louder their voices echoed than others’. You saw the legacy of that Missouri team in Austin last spring, when a group of athletes demanded the University of Texas rename several buildings, invest in inner cities, and change the school’s alma mater (They got their way on all but the final point). You saw it when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. You saw it even with Kaepernick, and if you were paying close attention, you might have seen a preview of what would happen to the kneeling quarterback.

Ian Simon was one of the leaders of those Mizzou protests, as well as the Tigers’ starting free safety. He was a standout member of a secondary, a group that ranked seventh nationally in 2015 in passing defense. Naturally, he was on the radar of a number of NFL teams, but every time he got brought in for an interview, things followed a familiar script.

“The first questions they asked [were], ‘What happened? Why did it happen? If something like that came up again, would [you] take a stance or speak out?’” Simon told a reporter earlier this year. “I answered that a billion times . . . and my answer was always the same. ‘If somebody needs my help and I can use my platform to help them, I am going to do that. I am going to do what is right.’”

He never even made a practice squad.

The 10th Annual Joey Awards

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