There will be more than a few articles proclaiming 2008 the greatest "sports year" in decades, if not ever. If the definition of sports is confined to professional sports played by men, then this hyperbolic statement could have a ring of truth. Tiger Woods won the US Open with a torn-up knee. The New York Giants shocked the unbeaten Patriots in a crackling Super Bowl. At the Beijng Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt redefined what’s physically possible. There was the reunion of the Boston Celtics and Lakers in the NBA Finals, the Phillies breaking the city of Philadelphia’s near three-decade streak without a championship and that barely scratches the surface.
Of course, for women athletes the terrain was far less forgiving. The female athlete with the most publicity was Indy racer Danica Patrick, who parlayed her trailblazing success into more money for Maxim, Stuff and whatever yuppie-airport-porn magazines she posed for. The Olympics also failed to bring attention to women athletes. The stories were there. We witnessed brilliance of hoops star Candace Parker, 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres and the upset of all upsets, the Japanese softball players who beat the US women for the gold, in an event the US had never lost. But this all received far less attention than the controversy over whether the Chinese women gymnasts were still in elementary school and the NBC-adoring world of beach volleyball.
But the free-flowing adrenaline of the last year shouldn’t blind us to the real story: the wall between sports and politics, which we are told is as immutable as Gibraltar, was not only challenged, it was thoroughly breached.
The Beijing Olympics throughout the year raised questions about the role of politics in sports. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge attempted to stifle this discussion, which proved somewhat difficult when George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin were the honored guests at the opening ceremonies. He also said nothing when Team Darfur leader and 2006 Speed Skating gold medalist Joey Cheek had his travel papers revoked the night before he was to end.
The political campaign of Barack Obama also pulled an unprecedented number of high-profile athletes into politics. Players were loud and proud about what it meant to them to see an African-American president in a nation built upon slavery. Even Michael Jordan, who famously once said that "Republicans buy sneakers too", made a small donation to the campaign. Athletes didn’t sit this presidential election out, and for that they deserve some serious cheers. They did it for the same reasons millions of Americans waited in lines to vote. As recently retired NBA star Alonzo Mourning said, "Our world right now is in turmoil, and it starts with our leadership. You got over 1.2 million Americans this year who’ve lost jobs; thousands and thousands of people who’ve lost their homes, education is in total disarray, as well as our healthcare system. So, I knew there needed to be some type of change for the better."
But the year 2008 started with a political moment that feels all too relevant. Israel’s embargo of the densely populated strip known as Gaza was creating a humanitarian crisis. Egyptian star midfielder Mohamed Aboutreika felt compelled to do something. After scoring in the Egyptian national side’s 3-0 victory over Sudan in the African Nations Cup, the player known as the Smiling Assassin lifted his jersey to reveal a T-shirt that read, "Sympathize with Gaza." Aboutreika was facing suspension and fines for his actions, but after e-mails and letters flooded the soccer governing board FIFA, he was given a pass. Now that the war on Gaza has become something altogether more frightening, we may be seeing a return of the shirts in the year to come.
These small acts of solidarity may seem negligible. But they matter. Whether we like it or not, whether we agree with it or not, athletes are role models. We can disagree and say athletes shouldn’t be cast in that role, but as the saying goes, you can disagree with gravity. It won’t help you if you’re falling out of an airplane. Since athletes are role models, and since a microscopic fraction of young people will actually become pro players, it’s worth asking the question: what are they modeling? If they’re modeling that life is about making money, driving tricked-out car and getting on MTV cribs, that’s a problem. If they’re modeling the idea that life is a game and you keep score by the size of your bank account, that’s destruction. If they’re modeling that what you have to say is as important as what you can do on the court, and caring about the greater world is actually heroic, then that can make a real difference. It’s an old expression: It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the White House, it’s who’s sitting in. When athletes break down the wall and speak, it becomes a living expression that we have entered an age where we will be reclaiming power from those who have abused the collective trust.