Five People In Sports To Be Thankful For This Year

Jason Collins CREDIT: GETTY
Jason Collins CREDIT: GETTY

There’s plenty to complain about and want to change in the world of sports, but there’s a lot to be thankful for too. Just this year alone, we’ve seen excellent tributes to retiring players like Mariano Rivera, amazing championships in basketball, baseball, and football, record-breaking achievements and highlight reel plays.

Most of all, we’ve seen developments that promise to make the world of sports a better place too. So on Thanksgiving Day, here are five people to be thankful for in the sports world:

Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, and Brittney Griner: Collins, Rogers, and Griner each came out in 2013, pushing the sports world forward on gay rights in their own ways. Rogers came out and promptly retired from professional soccer in February but returned to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy in May, making him the first openly gay man in any of the major American professional sports leagues. Collins came out in April, and though he hasn’t yet found a new team in the NBA, he became the first male player to come out while still trying to play in one of the big four sports leagues. Griner came out right before the 2013 WNBA Draft and has become the face of her new league, and she’s pushing the sports fashion world forward too: after she came out, Nike signed her to an endorsement deal that will allow her to market men’s clothing lines.

Ed O’Bannon: The former UCLA basketball star filed his lawsuit against the NCAA years ago, but it was in 2013 that the suit arguing that college athletes deserve compensation and control over their names, images, and likenesses took its biggest strides. A federal judge partially certified the complaint’s class action status this month, and while it won’t allow former players like O’Bannon to seek damages, it could change college sports for current and future athletes. Even though he doesn’t stand to gain from the suit, O’Bannon remains committed to it, seeing the bigger picture: the NCAA has vowed to fight it all the way, but any settlement or victory for O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs could radically reshape the college landscape in a way that gives players rights they’ve never had before.

Neymar and the Brazilian protesters: A year before their country’s World Cup, millions of Brazilians took to the streets of cities across the country to protest corruption, the effects of income inequality, and excessive spending on the World Cup and 2016 Olympics even as their schools, hospitals, and other basic services remained underfunded. Brazilians collectively brought the cost of these events into the world consciousness, making it clear that the excesses demanded by sporting organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee often come at a direct cost to the services people depend on. In the middle of the protests, Neymar, the country’s biggest soccer star, came out in support of the demonstrations, saying that he wanted a “more just, safer, healthier and more honest” Brazil, whose government, he said, needed to provide “better transport, health, education and safety” to its people. Neymar’s support gave the already strong movement a heft that helped force the government to listen. Maybe one day, FIFA and the IOC will too.

Zack Hodskins, Josh Harding, and Brandon Marshall: Hodskins, who was born with a left arm that ends just below his elbow, became a standout high school basketball player who in October accepted an offer to walk-on to the University of Florida’s men’s basketball team next year. Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012, took over the Minnesota Wild’s starting goalie position thanks to an injury at the beginning of the 2013 season and has done nothing but excel even as he deals with the neuro-degenerative disease. Marshall wore green shoes during an NFL game in October to bring awareness to mental illnesses — the Chicago Bears wide receiver was diagnosed with his own mental illness in 2011. Marshall elected to wear the shoes even when the NFL fined him for doing so, a move that only brought more attention to his cause. All in all, it showed us that disability and disease don’t have to hold anyone back — inside sports or otherwise.

Everyone involved with Nine for IX: ESPN’s documentary series to mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX was a major undertaking that, through nine separate films, highlighted many of the issues women have overcome and are still fighting today to participate equally in sports. The docs chronicled the fight for fair pay in tennis, the struggle for access to the locker room for reporters, and the complex issues of sexuality for women sports. It also reminded us that women are responsible for some of the greatest moments in sporting history, like when the U.S. Women’s National Team won the 1999 World Cup in front of bigger crowds than those that watched the 1994 men’s tournament. And in its own way, the Nine for IX series highlighted the fact that women still aren’t exactly equal in our sporting conscience: while they had their own series, female athletes and their stories have been majorly underrepresented in ESPN’s 30 for 30 films, the documentary series that spawned Nine for IX.