(CBS) — Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, U.S. Open tennis champ Naomi Osaka, Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart and Kansas City Chiefs teammates Patrick Mahomes and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff are being honored as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year for their athletic achievements and activism.
The five athlete-activists were honored in a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, racial tensions and presidential election. In a Sports Illustrated video narrated by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he described the athletes as “champions in their sport and of causes that seek to level society’s playing field.”
“In a year seemingly designed to divide physically, emotionally, politically, they found ways to unite, to inspire, to rebuild the shared experience sports usually provides, even in the most unusual circumstances,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They are athletes, they are activists.”
Following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, James led a group of Black athletes and entertainers to form More Than A Vote, a nonprofit focusing on fighting voter suppression. The organization helped recruit more than 42,000 poll workers for the presidential election and helped nearly 300,000 people vote at arenas. The group is currently involved with the Georgia Senate runoffs.
On Monday, James also won the 2020 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award in honor of his social activism, which in addition to More Than a Vote also includes opening up a school in his hometown. “It’s an honor that I will never ever forget to be linked with such a great human being in Muhammad,” James told SI.
“Hopefully he’s looking down on me and saying that I’m continuing his legacy,” he added.
Osaka, much like James, became a force for racial justice on and off of the court. Prior to every round at the U.S. Open this summer, she wore a different face mask displaying the name of a Black victim of police violence or a racist attack.
“For me, I just wanted people to start talking,” she told SI. “I think the biggest takeaway was learning in Japan, on the news they were discussing things. I feel like tennis is played all over the world and its broadcasted all over the world. In other countries, they may not know these names. They’ll start a discussion about it and they’ll learn. The biggest thing is to make people talk about it.”
Stewart returned from injury and led the Storm to an WNBA title, but as one of the league’s top players, she helped push it to support Black Lives Matter and maintained her advocacy. Stewart plays with U.S. Women’s National team star Megan Rapinoe’s fiancée, Sue Bird, and Rapinoe described the impact of her role.
“For her not only to understand that but also be willing to take that on made a huge difference,” Rapinoe wrote in Sports Illustated. “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.”
Mahomes, a superstar quarterback in the NFL, won a Super Bowl ring this year. In the offseason, he and other star players filmed a video calling on the league to condemn racism in wake of Floyd’s death. It prompted the NFL to admit it was wrong in suppressing players’ protests calling out police brutality and racial injustice.
“I’ve been given this platform and I want to make sure that I can do whatever I can to make the world a better place, in which ever way that is,” he said. “We believe that Black lives matter.”
Mahomes’ teammate, lineman Duvernay-Tardif did not return this season to play football and traded his cleats for medical scrubs. At the onset of the pandemic, he saw an opportunity to use his passion and experience in medicine to help others.
“Five years from now, I don’t want to be looking back at this year and say ‘Well, I could have helped, I could have done something about it,'” he told SI. “I really felt like I needed to be here and to try help to the best of my ability.”