Thirty years ago, Sports Illustrated’s then-managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, always one for surprises, named eight athletes as the franchise’s collective Sportsperson of the Year. A few of them were reasonably well-known, even mildly famous; others might have strained recognition by the more casual fan. But all of these Athletes Who Care, as the package was billed, were household names to some of the neediest and most vulnerable among us. “Sportsperson should always transcend the mere playing of the game,” Mulvoy says. “I hold that sacred. It was a funny year, 1987. There wasn’t really a performer that jumped out. So we thought, Let’s do something on all these athletes who are doing meaningful things, making the world better.”
Mulvoy is inarguably the most ardent, and connected, fan among the nine managing editors that span SI’s 64-year history. But when it came to the franchise’s signature award, off-field sacrifices and charity mattered as much as highlight reels and championship trophies, sometimes even more. “Athletes who care,” says Mulvoy, “is kind of the point of the award in the first place.”
We will remember 2017 as much for what athletes strove to achieve off the field as for what they achieved on it. And that was no small bar to clear. New champions were crowned, notably the Houston Astros, who ended the second-longest World Series drought by winning the first in the franchise’s history, while old champions (the Patriots, the Warriors, the Lynx, the Penguins) solidified their places in the pantheon.
Even in a year of sublime individual performances—Brady and KD, Deshaun and Fed, all of them considered for this award—athletes spoke loudest in their actions and words off the field. Amid the tribal, black-and-white conversations that polarized the country this year, athletes used their platforms to encourage a search for truth in the gray spaces. Not just Colin Kaepernick, the recipient of the third SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, but also Maya Moore, the WNBA star who won her 21st championship while lending her voice and face to the activist movement that swept through the nation’s stadiums and arenas in the late summer and early fall. They, too, demanded—and received—serious consideration for Sportsperson of the Year.
This issue is intended to celebrate a new generation of athletes who care, in all senses of the word: caring about humanitarian efforts, about social and political justice, about their communities and about their crafts.
Which brings us to the 2017 Sportsperson of the Year honorees, J.J. Watt and José Altuve. By the third week of September, less than a month after Hurricane Harvey had devastated Houston and its surrounding region, Watt had raised more than $37 million in relief aid. The SOTY candidacy of the Texans’ defensive end was unaffected by the gruesome, season-ending leg injury he suffered in Week 5. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year—the best defensive player of his generation, really—could have had the best season of his career, or the worst. His place as a Sportsperson of the Year had already been engraved. “Nothing J.J. Watt has achieved in his career, or might still achieve, will measure up to what he did for Houston,” says MMQB Editor-in-Chief Peter King.
The 5′ 6” Altuve had his own contribution to Houston’s post-storm recovery. The personal journey of the Astros second baseman is an inspirational one, a classic tale of an underestimated athlete overcoming the longest of odds. And this fall, Altuve was the joyous catalyst for one of the most unlikely World Series runs in recent memory. Championships don’t save communities, and we should be careful to assign too much weight to their powers of healing. But what other event can bring a million-plus people together and provide a platform, however ephemeral, to cast aside the differences that drive so many of us to sports in the first place? “The city of Houston has treated me really good,” Altuve tells Tom Verducci. “I felt at that time that I owed them something. So when they were having a hard time, I wanted to give something back to them.”
The stories of these two athletes who care represent two very different paths, but they led to the same destination: #HoustonStrong. Congratulations to J.J. Watt and José Altuve, our 2017 Sportsperson of the Year honorees.