Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James are among the most debated athletes of the modern era, by far. Both took stances on and off the playing surface that rankled the sensibilities of flag-waving, Trump-loving, conservative American “patriots” because the players refused to just “shut up” and play.
But, at 36, James’ preeminence as an athlete and an activist has an expiration date in the not-too-distant future. Kaepernick was conspicuously quiet in 2020, relatively speaking, in comparison to 2016 when he first knelt in San Francisco to protest police brutality and racism. His prospects for returning to the gridiron at age 33 have all but evaporated. Another aging legend, the equally loved and hated Megan Rapinoe, 35, retired after the national women’s soccer team won the World Cup in 2020.
Who are the athletes who will use their national cachet to push the culture forward in 2021 and beyond? Here are our choices:
1. Patrick Mahomes
The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and Super Bowl MVP used his cachet as the NFL’s transcendent star to push the league to recognize the Black Lives Matter movement.
2. Naomi Osaka
The shy and soft-spoken U.S. Open tennis champion wore face masks to make the world remember Black victims of police brutality and racial injustice.
3. Breanna Stewart
The WNBA superstar returned from a career-threatening Achilles tear to capture her second championship with the Seattle Storm and Finals MVP title. This White athlete spoke out loudly against racism and police brutality and for Breonna Taylor and women’s equality.
4. Cori “Coco” Gauff
The 15-year-old tennis phenom became an overnight international sensation when she stormed past her idol, Venus Williams, and into the third round of Wimbledon in 2019. Now 16, Gauff used her burgeoning fame in 2020 to cast a light on the corrosive effects of racism and injustice.
5. Maya Moore
The silent assassin and four-time WNBA champ made a deafening statement when she temporarily quit the game for two years to secure the release of 39-year-old Jonathan Irons. He was serving a 50-year prison sentence for a wrongful conviction of burglary and assault on a man in his home with a weapon. Irons was freed in 2020, the two are now married, and Moore’s return to the game in 2021 appears set.