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Keith Strudler: Why 2016 Wasn’t So Bad

The end of the year is when we try to create meaning, to put the past into context and begin to look ahead. By most accounts, a lot of people largely think of 2016 as a giant black hole. I’ve heard worst year ever, the end of the world as we know it, and a bunch of other things I can’t repeat on the air. Depending on your own personal experiences and your ability to ignore the hypothetical and/or live with cognitive dissonance, your own particular mileage may vary. Regardless, I doubt many of us will view 2016 as the height of American excellence. Granted, it’s not 1941, but that’s a low bar for measure.

That may be true for things like geopolitics and race relations and the future of the planet, but perhaps less so for the landscape of sports. In fact, we were privileged to a bevy of riches on the fields and courts and tracks and pools this year. Granted, every year has its sporting superlatives, but 2016 was particularly grand. For starters, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning got to live everyone’s childhood fantasy, ending his illustrious career with a walk-off Super Bowl win. The year continued with the greatest regular season in NBA history, at least according to wins and losses as the Golden State Warriors won 73 regular season games and played a game that felt more like a performance than a sporting event. And LeBron James managed to top that by beating that very team to bring Cleveland its first major sports title since 1964 – and perhaps establish himself as the greatest athlete to ever palm a basketball.

If that weren’t enough, and if you’re willing to ignore the inherent cynicism that comes in holding an Olympic Games in an increasingly impoverished land of economic distress, the 2016 Rio Summer Games were yet another display of human accomplishment. Leave aside the obvious of the American women’s Gymnastics Team, but we also saw the final stanza in Michael Phelps’ historic swimming career and, on land, the reaffirmation of the fastest man on the planet in Usain Bolt. Not to mention a fairly heroic salute by Ethiopian distance runner Feyisa Lilesa at the end of the Olympic Marathon.

Then in the fall, the Chicago Cubs broke their 108 year curse to win the World Series, an event largely regarded as the best in sports of 2016, at least according to our year end Marist Poll. Even as the heavy favorite going in, Chicago’s win felt like a Cinderella story. And some five million people gathered – peacefully no less – to celebrate. It felt good to have a bunch of people together in one spot without anyone yelling “lock her up” or “build the wall.”

If you actually want a Cinderella story and care to look outside our borders, Leicester City won the vaunted Premier League for the very first in history despite 5000-1 odds. If that doesn’t make you believe that anything is possible, then nothing will. I think the only people that didn’t see this as the feel good story of a lifetime are the British betting books, which had to buy people out of what looked like throwing coins into a fountain at the time.

So what does this all mean, other than being a fairly obvious retelling of the year in sports? Well, perhaps it’s to remind us that there is enormous potential in the human condition, even if we don’t always recognize or realize that possibility. In the framework of human competition, we find ourselves capable of both our best and our worst. That’s not simply this year, but throughout history. And certainly, we’ve seen some of the worst this year – like the NFL’s continued cover of concussion research, or the systemic PED abuse by Russian sports federations, all under a KGB-like shroud of secrecy. But as an aggregate, this sports year has been quite good – inspiring even. Whether you seek solace in individual exceptionalism, collective success, or righteous sacrifice, you can find it in 2016.

Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising. At the highest levels, sport strips people to their very essence, where competitors are both glorious and vulnerable at the same time. Where they must, almost by default, disarm themselves of the very chicanery that begets our politicians, corporate citizens – even each other – that too often leaves us crestfallen come year’s end.

So, as 2016 fades to 2017, and you feel like the world is simply one headline from extinction, remember that this past year wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was often spectacular. You simply need to know where to look.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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