Dave Zirin: Sport in 2015 was the year women roared

Serena Williams was named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year: a glaringly obvious choice after three grand slams at the
January 17, 2016

This past year there was no shortage of people who tried to leverage the sports world to boldly speak out on issues beyond the field of play.

In the United States, Missouri football players went on strike against racism; the remarkable activists in Boston — led in many neighbourhoods by people of colour and women — kept out the rapacious Olympics; the continuing fight ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics is taking on both the International Olympic Committee and the Brazilian government.

South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier spoke out against the Confederate flag before and after the Dylann Roof murders in South Carolina. Tennis legend Serena Williams returned to Indian Wells 14 years after being showered with racist invective by “fans” — a return she combined with raising funds for the Equal Justice Initiative. I could name many more examples.

We are clearly in a sports moment when social crisis and inflamed bigotry, conjoined with social media, has created a space for athletes to take their beliefs straight to the public. It is courageous, and it matters, puncturing the privilege that surrounds the lives of so many fans.

That being said, I will not remember the past 12 months primarily for the aforementioned athletic actions. For me, 2015 will be recalled as the Year of Women in sports: a time when female athletes muscled for centre stage and masses of people — men and women — put aside their prejudices to join the party.

In June, this moment crystallised for me when my seven-year-old, sports-obsessed son asked me to name my top five must-see athletes. The five mentioned off the top of my head were Serena Williams, soccer star Lionel Messi, NBA star Steph Curry, mixed-martial artist Ronda Rousey and pro wrestler Sasha Banks. It was only after speaking that I did the double take at the ratio.

The next month, my family was in front of the television cheering on the US women's World Cup team. We were not alone. The World Cup finals had ratings in the US that would have made any men's league — save the NFL — cry with envy, as well as a goal from Carli Lloyd that will be replayed forever.

Women's sports in the US also gave us the year's two most stunning and compelling upsets: Serena's gut-punch US Open semi-final loss to the unheralded Roberta Vinci, and Rousey going down after a kick in the head from Holly Holm.

In many ways, last year could not have ended with a moment that was more on the nose. Serena Williams was named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year: a glaringly obvious choice after three grand slams at the age of 34.

Yet a small sector of social media erupted with anger that the award — for Sportsperson of the Year, remember — did not go to a horse, triple-crown winner American Pharaoh. It was dead-enders showing their own irrelevance, while Serena literally took the throne.

Time will tell, but I believe that we will remember 2015 as a pivotal point when women in sports took it to that next level and through their play offered the sharpest possible rebuke to what has at times seemed over the years like an anchored, immobile state of second-class citizenship. Let's see what 2016 and beyond will bring, but for the father of a daughter who often thinks sports is not for her and a son we're trying to raise in the 21st century, 2015 was a game changer.

This was the Year of Women in sports, and over the next years I think we will see the reverberations of the last 12 months well beyond the playing field.

[Abridged from Edge of Sports.]

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