How much do sports dominate American culture? This year featured the most-watched presidential debate in the history of the country (84 million viewers) and that came up about 30 million viewers short of a forgettable football game played seven months before. Every year, sports and culture intersect in music, film and TV. This year though, even the triviality of sports couldn't escape some of the most serious issues in our country. Here are the biggest ways sports and culture came together in 2016. The list includes everything, from the frivolous to the serious, which, for better or worse, is how it goes in America.
An innocent conversation between a mother and a reporter turned into an international incident that saw one of the most famous Olympians in the world go from helpless victim of crime to unreliable storyteller to out-and-out liar to the embodiment of the ugly American stereotype to a pathetic, sympathetic figure clinging to fame on Dancing With The Stars. But in the same way we were too quick to believe Lochte's story of gunpoint robbery in Rio we were too hasty in condemning him. He may have left out the frat-boy antics and urination but in the end, he and his swimming buddies were relieved of a certain of money by guys with guns. Then, while Lochte fled to the States (perhaps the only smart move he made), three swimmers had their passports taken and Jimmy Feigen only got his returned when he was extorted compelled to pay an $11,000 fine instituted by the Brazilian judicial system without any sort of due process. Lochte was just one American idiot. Brazil ended up proving that its reputation as lawless and corrupt was more true than anyone wanted to admit. At the time, I wrote hopefully that the incident would be a footnote to the Rio Games - an "oh yeah, I remember that!" tale left to the annals of Olympic history. So far, that comment has been of Lochte-like wisdom. Say "Rio" and his name comes to mind way sooner than it should.
The two queens
After being part of one of the biggest musical events of 2015 (joining Taylor Swift on stage during her massive 1989 tour), Serena stole the show in one of the biggest musical events of 2016 - Beyonce's Lemonade. In the video for the song Sorry, which was the most provocative track on Queen Bey's supposed revenge album to a philandering Jay Z (i.e., the "Becky with the good hair" song), Serena twerks her way through a Victorian mansion while Beyonce sits looking regal and commanding while, in a rarity, being the second most powerful female in the room. The song's bridge begins "middle fingers up," a particularly appropriate sentiment for Serena, who plays that way every time she steps on the court.
NFL TV ratings
A confluence of factors led to declines in NFL ratings for the first two months of the year. The matchups weren't great, the games themselves weren't either, people are cutting the cord, the league's two biggest stars were absent for the first four weeks of the season (Tom Brady and Peyton Manning) and the newest star quickly faded in both the eyes of the public and on the field (Cam Newton). However, the most identified reason was an increased attention in the presidential election. It was fairly simple: Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all had increased viewership over 2015 on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights and the NFL had fewer viewers in those time slots. You don't need to be a Nielsen analyst to figure out the math. Since the election, ratings have rebounded. Bigger, better games haven't hurt, neither has the presence of the Dallas Cowboys, who have played their last five games on national television. (Only three of the team's games have been played at 1 p.m. ET, meaning the Cowboys have had a national (if not exclusive) audience just about every week.) Overall, the panic seemed a bit overblown. Numbers ebb and flow. The league is wise to notice these things and pay them all due attention but overreacting would be just as bad. Oh, one thing that almost certainly did not affect NFL ratings: Colin Kaepernick's protest.
'Everybody Wants Some!!'
Field of Dreams it isn't. The Richard Linklater film, the one described as a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, follows the fictional Southeast Texas Cherokees college baseball team as they party and prowl in the waning days of the summer of 1980. A frequent choice for critic's year-end top-10 lists, the film is a sports movie in the way Die Hard is a Christmas movie - though there are baseball scenes with realistically good baseball (which is more than Dazed and Confused can say), the sport is more of a framing device than anything. Overall, Everybody Wants Some!! is plotless, aimless and uncomplicated. It's perfect.
The top sports rap reference of 2016
On We The People, the standout track from A Tribe Called Quest's comeback album, the late Phife Dawg dropped a verse that featured 10 tremendous bars rhyming off "statisticians," which happened to include the best sports rap lyric of 2016. (Phife as sabermatician?) "Boy, I tell you that's vision/Like Tony Romo when he hittin' Witten." Tribe's comeback album was released in November, months about Phife's death and the out-of-date reference was a sad reminder that we were listening to the last verses by one of rap's most masterful lyricists. And anyway, "Tony Romo" flows much better than "Dak Prescott."
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Black Lives Matter
Speaking of Kaepernick, he became the de facto leader of the sports world's involvement in the meaningful mission after he quietly took a knee during the national anthem at a 49ers preseason game and continued doing so into the regular season. He wasn't the greatest spokesman for the effort but got the most attention because everything the NFL does is bigger. Outwardly, at least, it was the WNBA leading the way in the protests. The Minnesota Lynx started the league's involvement by wearing black warmup shirts reading "Change Starts With Us" and other teams in the league soon followed, despite fines. (The league wisely rescinded those fines two days later.) At the ESPY's, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James delivered a call to action. There were smaller, but no less important, moments too. A national anthem singer was barred from performing at the 76ers opener because of a shirt bearing a protest message and a singer was kicked out of his group when he changed the words to O Canada before the MLB All-Star Game. In terms of the NFL, other players joined Kaepernick (including two Niners teammates), but by the time the season kicked into gear, the attention to the protests sputtered even if the message remains as important as ever.
No one cares who athletes (or celebrities or the Twitter echo chamber or you or me) vote for
While we assign athletes more importance and look to their actions in certain situations, we dismiss them just as quickly in others. The election was one of those times. Surely there were prominent active athletes who cast a ballot for Donald Trump; it's just that most didn't choose to advertise that fact. Can you blame them? Tom Brady was given a brief reprieve from Deflategate questions for a couple of days this summer in order to be hectored about his relationship with the Republican presidential candidate. (How dare Brady have been friendly with him in the past!) LeBron James and Steph Curry were among the athletes vocal in their support of Hillary Clinton. But in the end, those endorsements, plus the ones Trump received from former athletes (who didn't have to face media questions every week), coaches and NASCAR drivers had the same effect on the presidential race as you or I: a single vote among tens of millions.
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It was Cinderella versus the king. Marcus Willis was a teaching pro in England who'd bounced around the lower minor leagues of tennis for a couple of years. He won a few futures events, got up to the mid-300s in the rankings but injuries had him ready to quit the sport until his girlfriend convinced him to keep at it. He'd made $300 playing the sport in 2016 before he snuck into a Wimbledon qualifier after another Brit experienced a large drop in the rankings. Willis, ranked No. 772 in the world, won three matches and become the lowest-ranked player to make a Grand Slam in nearly 20 years. That story, and the $36,000 payday that would come with a first-round loss, would have made for a great enough tale on its own, but then, in the first round, Willis rolled over world No. 54 Richard Berankis in straight sets and became the toast of Great Britain. Up next was a match on Centre Court against Wimbledon's greatest champion, Roger Federer. Though the match wasn't close, Willis had a lob winner that'll be remembered for as long as they keep playing on the grass at the All-England Club. And thanks to a classy gesture by Federer, Willis got to soak in the applause of his countrymen on the biggest stage in the sport. He couldn't stick around Wimbledon too long though. One day after losing to Federer on Centre Court, Willis had a club doubles match for the Warwick Boat Club.
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The Phelps meme
South Africa's Chad Le Clos shockingly ended Michael Phelps' grip on the 200 butterfly in London. Before the semifinals of what would be their rematch in Rio, the cocky Le Clos danced in front of Phelps in the ready room, like a boxer listening to the refs' instructions in a ridiculous attempt to psych out the most dominant Olympic athlete in history. Phelps' reaction, a stare down so intense and brooding that it almost bordered on parody, became the meme of the Games and later was mimicked in a Phelps commercial for some company or another. Phelps ended up beating Le Clos (a picture of Le Clos helplessly looking at Phelps as the two charged to the wall in the finals was one of the best of the Games) and the South African sadly - at least for purposes of the enjoyment of a seemingly intense rivalry - was all class in defeat.
Sports biggest stars pass on
The sports world couldn't escape what seemed like an especially prolific year in celebrity deaths. Two of the greatest giants the sports world has ever seen - Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer - died. It was a year that saw a death of a star athlete not even yet in their prime (Jose Fernandez), pioneers (Pat Summit), media greats (Bud Collins, John Saunders, Craig Sager) and far too many more.