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Sports Illustrated names Breanna Stewart one of its 5 ‘Athlete Activist’ Sportspersons of the Year

Sportswriters unhappy with the choice not to name a Black WNBA player are speaking out. Sports Illustrated’s top editor explains to Outsports why he stands by the selection of Breanna Stewart.

A computer painting of Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm
WNBA player Breanna Stewart covers Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, along with Lebron James, Naomi Osaka, Patrick Mahomes and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.
Sports Illustrated/Alexis Franklin

For only the fourth time in its history, Sports Illustrated has named a woman in the LGBTQ community Sportsperson of the Year: Breanna Stewart of the WNBA championship-winning Seattle Storm. The magazine selected the 2020 MVP alongside four other “Athlete Activists.”

“Stewie” joins Lebron James, Naomi Osaka, Patrick Mahomes and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif as honorees for 2020. King James is the first athlete to be so honored three times.

The magazine commissioned 24-year-old artist Alexis Franklin to create five stunning individual covers for this special issue. In addition to the finished computer paintings seen here, there’s a YouTube video showing a time-lapse of Franklin’s breathtaking work.

Sports Illustrated sportspersons of the year seen as computer paintings by Alexis Franklin.
Clockwise from top left to right, Patrick Mahomes, Lebron James, Breanna Stewart, Naomi Osaka and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Sports Illustrated’s 2020 Sportspersons of the Year.
Sports Illustrated/Alexis Franklin

Five champions with a platform

Why these five? “It’s a combination of both on and off the field excellence,” SI co-editor-in-chief Stephen Cannella told Outsports. “People who have accomplishments and achievements, obviously in sports, but then use that platform as a way to have an impact way beyond the playing field.

“Each of these people won a championship in 2020,” said Cannella. “LeBron and the Lakers won the NBA championship. Patrick Mahomes and the diversity of the Chiefs won the Super Bowl. Obviously, Breanna Stewart won the NBA championship with the Seattle Storm and Naomi Osaka, won the U.S. Open Championship. So, that’s that’s their on field excellence.

“This group also represents a nice range of activism on a lot of different causes and a lot of different themes that really dominated the larger conversation way beyond sports in 2020.”

Police shooting victim Breonna Taylor’s name appears on the back of Breanna Stewart’s WNBA jersey.
Breanna Stewart wore a WNBA jersey with Breonna Taylor’s name on its back.
WNBA/SI handout video

About the choice of Stewart, Cannella explained it in terms of her being “very active in support of the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement this year,” and how Stewart and the Storm were front and center of the conversation about social justice and in dedicating the WNBA season to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman and EMT in Louisville, Ky. who was murdered by police during a drug raid inside her apartment in March 2020.

“There’s a through line here for her and all of these honorees. This was a year when we saw athletes really raise their voices and take action in the name of inclusiveness, equality, equal rights, all those things.”

LGBTQ connections

The article about Osaka in this issue of the magazine is written by out tennis legend Martina Navratilova; Stewart’s profile is penned by last year’s Sportsperson of the Year, Megan Rapinoe, who of course is engaged to marry Stewart’s Storm teammate, Sue Bird.

Cannella told me the reason SI chose to honor Stewart was not specific to her being LGBTQ, or in a relationship with a woman. Her girlfriend is Spanish basketball player and former Phoenix Mercury free agent Marta Xargay Casademont, seen in both Stewart’s and Xargay’s Instagram posts and by accompanying Stewart to the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla. That earned them a mention in Autostraddle’s Favorite WNBA Wubble Couples in August, right behind Rapinoe and Bird.

Rapinoe, of course, famously called out Sports Illustrated this time last year in her Sportsperson of the Year acceptance speech, for the magazine’s lack of diversity. Several sportswriters, WNBA fans and readers added their voices to that complaint on social media Sunday, after SI revealed the honorees.

Backlash

Those criticizing the magazine praised and hailed the accomplishments of Stewart, not only how she returned from a devastating Achilles injury to play better than ever and help win a championship, but also her work in both social justice and get-out-the-vote movements. This wasn’t about choosing Stewart, they said... it was about who was not chosen. Again.

Queer, Black, non-binary writer Katie Barnes of espnW made their feelings known on Twitter:

Kelsey Trainor, a sportswriter who doubles as an entertainment attorney and TV producer in New York City, tweeted that “I love Breanna Stewart but to name a white woman SI Sportsperson of the Year as an Athlete Activist after all of the work Black women of the WNBA did this year... We are not doing it right still.”

In an interview with Outsports, Trainor expounded on her critique: “It’s not that hard to read a room, and to see the work that’s being done. So if you’re going to have a leader in activism in the WNBA this year of all years, I don’t know how it’s not a black woman.”

Trainor, who is white, as I am, encouraged me and her Twitter followers to seek out the voices of Black sportswriters. She tagged a few, among them, Journalist Khristina Williams, who tagged even more. Williams DM’d me that she applauded “Stewie” for both her allyship and for an amazing season, but that by the measure of “athlete activism,” it was wrong of SI to ignore the Black women at the forefront.

As examples, Williams named Maya Moore, Renee Montgomery, out players Natasha Cloud, Layshia Clarendonwho is expecting a baby with her wife Jessica this month — as well as Angel McCoughtry, Natalie Achonwa, Elizabeth Williams, Sydney Colson and Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike and more.

“Collectively, all of the athletes in the WNBA have done and will continue to fight the good fight,” Williams wrote. “But, it is our duty to make sure that we are not erasing the work and voices of those who have continuously been on the frontlines.”

Clarendon herself tweeted a sharply-worded blast of Sports Illustrated, offering what she thought should have been its choice for the annual award:

Several people I spoke with noted a statistic from a 2019 report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, aka TIDES: researchers found 82.7% of women in the WNBA are classified as “players of color,” and 67% of players in the league identify as Black. Those numbers have since been rounded to “80% Black” in the minds of most people I heard from.

“In 2020, a year where Black people are facing second-hand trauma while simultaneously being tasked to educate those who have ‘just discovered’ these injustices, it’s jarring to see not one of the Black athletes in the WNBA, an 80% Black league, be recognized for their efforts,” Multimedia sports journalist Arielle Chambers, recently named with Williams as two of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, told Outsports. “Stewie has a glorious comeback story. She’s quite literally a GOAT. But, when looking back at 2020 SI Sportsperson of the Year, reading ‘The Activist Athlete’ next to the title, and not seeing a single one of these Black women who showed up for society... that’s sad. When you say ‘Black lives matter,’ mean it. This is more than your June Black square. Stop erasing Black women from history.”

SI Responds

On Sunday, I asked co-EIC Cannella specifically: “Will you address online criticism for selecting a white WNBA player to represent a movement by and for Black women in the WNBA?” He responded with this statement:

“This year’s Sportsperson honor is about recognizing athletes who reached the pinnacles of their sports in 2020 and also used their platforms in a variety of ways to take action, create awareness and build unity. Breanna Stewart was the top player for the WNBA champion Seattle Storm and was named Finals MVP. She did all that less than a year after suffering a career-threatening injury. With those achievements, along with her unabashed advocacy for equality for everyone, Breanna Stewart represents a Sportsperson’s standard of excellence on and off the court.”

I consulted an SB Nation colleague about Cannella’s response, particularly about his choice of words, “equality for everyone.” Here’s the view of my top WNBA expert, Tamryn Spruill, editor-in-chief at Swish Appeal and author of the forthcoming “Court Queens: A Story of Passion, Perseverance and Power from the Women of the WNBA” (Abrams 2022).

“Stephen Cannella and his team are in lockstep with mainstream sports media’s seemingly rabid fixation on white women athletes in the WNBA at the exclusion of all others,” Spruill wrote. “This is particularly problematic in a league made up of 80% Black women — many of whom, as your question implies, started the league’s social justice initiatives that took shape throughout the 2020 season. As your question further illuminates, the movement was started for Black women — Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and all other Black women killed by police.

“‘That could be me,’ was a statement I heard often, because after the lights go off in the arena, they are Black women,” Spruill continued. She joined the chorus singing the praises of Stewart, calling her a “once per generation player” and raving how she was even better in 2020 following her Achilles injury. But again, the problem isn’t with Stewart, it’s who wasn’t chosen, according to Spruill. “SI missed the mark, but with dagger precision — right into the hearts of the players who powered the season of social justice from conception and played it out as Black women in a racist society.

“Cannella’s statement implies that the WNBA’s season of social justice was not a fight for equality for everyone. In fact, a fight for equality for Black women is a fight for equality for everyone. Choosing to amplify one white woman over more than a hundred majority-Black players in the league... is a stinging, yet familiar slap in the face.”

Spruill’s advice to Stewart, via Twitter: decline the award.

Stewart’s View, in her own words

So far, the 2020 MVP has not replied to any tweets about the selection, or issued any statement, nor responded to an inquiry from Outsports; she has retweeted congratulatory messages from her team, her league, the NBA and friends.

In 2017, espnW’s Barnes wrote about Stewart’s journey from quiet UConn All-American to outspoken activist: ”There’s a lot going on in the world. This is going to help more than it’s going to hurt.” And Stewart told them she was aware her large Twitter following provided her with an opportunity to send a message to the world: “If we have a platform that reaches thousands of people,” Stewart said, “we have to use it.”

Breanna Stewart is interviewed by Sports Illustrated.
Breanna Stewart
Sports Illustrated

“I’m white and my teammates are black,” Stewart said in an SI video celebrating the announcement, shared with Outsports in advance of Monday’s release to the public. “Being in a league that has 80% of Black women, there’s so much that we have to fight for. Racism is at the top of the list.”

In another SI video with a more extensive interview, Stewart expounded about her awareness of race among her teammates.

“We don’t all go through the same situations,” she said. “We don’t have the same experiences, we don’t have the same thoughts. I think for people that are from the white community, it’s about having those uncomfortable conversations, whether it’s with myself, directly, with my family, with my circle that I touch, and maybe my black teammate doesn’t touch, because they don’t have that same direct reach. And also, knowing that there’s a time to speak and there’s a time to listen and really kind of hear my teammates out here, everything that they’re going through, and find a way to help be better.”

Breanna Stewart wore a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Breanna Stewart
WNBA/Sports Illustrated

Congratulations to Breanna Stewart from all of us at Outsports, and to all those named Sportspersons of the Year. Click here to read more about this year’s honorees and other awards. The SI Awards will take place in Las Vegas on Dec. 19 and stream live via the Sports Illustrated Facebook page beginning at 7:00 p.m. EST.