There are plenty of awards being handed out by Sports Illustrated at their Sportsperson of the Year Ceremony Dec. 8, including several new ones, but the pick for the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award may make the most headlines.
The magazine announced Thursday that this year’s winner is Colin Kaepernick. Here’s more on that decision from their release:
“Muhammad Ali’s enduring legacy is built around the ideals of equality and individual expression and the importance of standing behind one’s beliefs regardless of the cost,” said SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Executive Editor Stephen Cannella. “There will never be another Ali, but few athletes have followed his example as fully as Colin Kaepernick. In this noisy political and media environment, it’s easy to forget his core message: that all people in this country deserve to be treated with dignity, respect and recognition of their civil rights. Too often that message has been lost in the debate over how it is expressed. Colin has sacrificed much in the name of that message, even as he has furthered it with significant charitable efforts that are making a real difference in communities at the grassroots level.”
Each year, Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s widow, consults with SI’s editorial staff in the selection of the Legacy Award, and Mrs. Ali will attend the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards show.
Said Mrs. Ali: “I am proud to be able to present this year’s SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award to Colin Kaepernick for his passionate defense of social justice and civil rights for all people. Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. He has used his celebrity and philanthropy to benefit of some of our most vulnerable community members. I know the Ali family joins me in congratulating Colin as he receives the 2017 SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.”
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“If I was walking down the highway with a quarter in my pocket and a briefcase full of truth, I’d be so happy.” – Muhammad Ali, Sports Illustrated, Feb. 19, 1968
Colin Kaepernick made his truth known when he first decided not to stand for the national anthem. He had a lot of football left to play and a lot more money to make when he made his decision. It was late August, 2016. People who were anonymous in life had become famous in death. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. Freddie Gray. They were tragic symbols of a society that had taken a terribly wrong turn. As the anthem played ahead of the 49ers’ preseason game against the Texans, Kaepernick, San Francisco’s 28-year-old quarterback at the time, quietly took a seat on the bench.
It took two weeks for anyone from the media to ask him about it. Kaepernick explained that he was making a statement about inequality and social justice, about the ways this country “oppresses black people and people of color.”
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” he added. “There are bodies in the street,” he said then, “and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In the last 16 months, Kaepernick’s truth has been twisted, distorted and used for political gain. It has cost him at least a year of his NFL career and the income that should have come with it. But still, it is his truth. He has not wavered from it. He does not regret speaking it. He has caused millions of people to examine it. And, quietly, he has donated nearly a million dollars to support it.
For all those reasons—for his steadfastness in the fight for social justice, for his adherence to his beliefs no matter the cost—Colin Kaepernick is the recipient of the 2017 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Each year SI and the Ali family honor a figure who embodies the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy and has used sports as a platform for changing the world.
This is a pick that’s definitely going to draw some backlash from the many Kaepernick critics out there, but as Lonnie Ali notes, Muhammad Ali’s own actions (especially his Vietnam War protest) also drew tons of backlash at the time. And there may be plenty who endorse this recognition for Kaepernick, too. We’ll see what the overall reaction to this selection winds up being, but it’s certainly a notable move, and one that will draw significant attention for SI and these awards, both positive and negative.