Our contributors spent 2015 writing, researching, and teaching about sports – and, like any other fan, they watched plenty of matches, tournaments, and races. To close the year, we asked their take on the sports personality who made the biggest impression, for reasons good or bad.   
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(credits: Serena Williams by Jimmy Baikovicius; Michelle Payne by Chris Phutully; Abby Wambach by Ronald Woan/all available via Creative Commons/Flickr; Loretta Lynch/CSPAN)

Serena. She needs no last name. She is not the greatest female tennis player of all time. She is the greatest tennis player of all time.
In addition to all of the aces and forehand winners, Serena stood her muscular self in the midst of a scathing sea of judgment from the New York Times and others, demonstrating that women can and should be as strong as they want to be in order to achieve new heights of elite athletic excellence. We can only hope she will continue to be in tennis for quite a while longer.
–Amy Bass wrote last March about women who write about sports, and the men who hate them. She also writes about sport, society, and politics for CNN Opinion.
Serena Williams. Having turned professional in 1995, it is incredible that she has maintained a career for twenty years at the highest levels of women’s tennis. With over 700 wins in her career, and just one loss in 2015, her record speaks for itself. But what makes Serena fascinating is that she is a strong black sports woman in the spotlight of an overwhelmingly white male sports media. The nexus of gender, ethnicity, and physical excellence causes her actions to be mediated in ways that demonstrates some very conservative and discriminatory practices in how sport is reported to wider audiences.
She has come back from personal difficulty, injury and setbacks to win the Serena Slam and, through her links with fashion and self presentation, does so in a powerful and self-assured manner. Her detractors have always said that her interests in fashion and so on show a lack of focus. But 2015 indicated that she is convincingly dominant in her sport, one of the great athletes of her generation who can convincingly move into related fields.
–Jean Williams edited a 2015 edition of the journal Sport in History on the history of sports uniforms. She also blogged about the Women’s World Cup for Sports Illustrated‘s Planet Futbol, and contributed to Allrounder panels on the best sports rivalries and broadcasters.
I want to add my voice to those who are thrilled that Serena Williams was chosen as Sportsperson of the Year by Sports Illustrated. I would name her Sports Figure of the Year here, too. Fortunately, SI didn’t listen to those who suggested on an online poll that the magazine choose a racehorse. Williams is just the ninth woman to receive the SI award and only the third woman ever to receive it individually – the last being track champion Mary Decker in 1983.
1983! Good grief.
I agree with those who would like to see SI shift to what the AP has done since 1931 – naming one man and one woman as Athlete of the Year. Serena has already received the AP Female Athlete of the Year award three times before earning it again this year. Women tennis players are by far the AP’s most popular choice, with 30 of the award winners coming from that sport (Chris Evert was also named Female Athlete of the Year four times). Golf comes in second with 26. Personally, I’ll be excited when any of these polls start paying attention to the women of roller derby. Athletes like Suzy Hotrod and Bonnie Thunders deserve recognition beyond the derbyverse.
–Devoney Looser’s essay “Knee Pads, Fishnet & Feminism” is based on her own experiences in roller derby. She contributed to last winter’s panels on the best and worst performances by an actor portraying an athlete in film.
It would be easy to nominate Sonny Bill Williams, one of the (many) stars of the New Zealand team that won the rugby (union) World Cup in England this autumn. The team itself proved itself to be probably the best ever, and Sonny Bill, a rugby league player (who has also had a foray into boxing), provided many of the sporting highlights with his deft offloading of the ball to other players while being crunched in a tackle. The defining moment for him, however, was when he handed over his winner’s medal to a young fan who had managed to get onto the pitch after the final. The boy’s family, realising what it was, tried to give back this astonishing memento but Williams refused. The rugby authorities were wise enough to dig out a spare for him.
But instead I’ll go for the less obvious choice of Gary Neville. He had a long and glorious career as a chippy and combative right back for Manchester United and England, and seemed to relish the opprobrium that came his way. After retiring he reinvented himself as the sharpest and most incisive of TV analysts, winning the grudging respect of even some Liverpool fans. However, what edges him over the line is his recent move into the managerial hot seat at faltering Spanish giants Valencia. After spending a few years in the TV studios laying into other football managers, he said that he simply had to take the job or lose that hard-won credibility. I liked him before he took the Valencia job – it’s rare to find an ex-pro that has something meaningful to contribute rather than bland generalities – but I like him even more now he’s putting his money where his mouth is. It’ll be fascinating. Good luck, Gary.
–Nicholas Walton has written for The Allrounder about Newcastle United, Sampdoria, and how he wants his son to be a miserable fan of Middlesbrough. In 2015 he published his first book, a history of the city of Genoa.
Abby Wambach, who is finally hanging up her boots after 14 years of international football. One of the greatest and most recognised women’s footballers, Wambach played for the US in 252 matches, is a former FIFA World Player of the Year, won two Olympic Gold medals and this year’s World Cup, and finished her career as football’s leading all-time international scorer.
–Emily Ryall this past year edited the collection of essays, Philosophical Perspectives on Play, published a philosophical essay on penalty shoot-outs, and was interviewed by the BBC about the Women’s World Cup.

 

It would be hard to vote against tennis superstar Serena Williams, who fell just two matches short of a single-season grand slam. I also don’t really see any story rising to the level of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s World Cup championship.

But, in the spirit of originality, I nominate none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. On his 63rd birthday, he took a break from bombing Syria to score seven goals in a hockey game featuring  oligarchs Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg. Granted, Putin had former NHL All Stars Viacheslav Fetisov and Pavel Bure (aka “The Russian Rocket”) on his side. But let’s not take away from his scoring accomplishment, especially since the leader of the expanding Russian empire, who has recently formed a mutual admiration society with Donald Trump, just learned to skate in 2010.

–John Bloom wrote last year about Little League baseball and the supposed innocence of youth sports, and offered his suggestions for the best summer books on sports history.

 

Those in the running for sports figure of the year have to be superlative both in and outside sport. My two potential figures comfortably qualify on these grounds. I was tempted to nominate Indigenous Australian footballer Adam Goodes for his dignified assertiveness and fine play in the face of vicious, racially-inspired booing from many fans, and fellow-travelling denigration by some media and public commentators. But he was shaded by jockey Michelle Payne who, when interviewed immediately after being the first woman to ride the winner of the Melbourne Cup, the mythical “race that stops a nation” declared on live TV, “It’s such a chauvinistic sport, a lot of the owners wanted to kick me off. I just want to say to everyone else that they can get stuffed if they think that women aren’t strong enough, because we just beat the world.” She picked her moment perfectly in both the horse race and its aftermath.

–David Rowe wrote this past year about the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes and Australia’s failed bid to host the FIFA World Cup. He also writes about sport in Australia and England for The Conversation. 

 

Michelle Payne, the first female jockey ever to win a Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious horse race (and the only sporting event before this year to merit a public holiday). Her victory comment that people who think women can’t ride as well as men can “get stuffed” was inspirational!

–Deb Waterhouse-Watson wrote in 2015 about the controversies surrounding footballer Adam Goodes and her own experiences growing up as a fan of AFL

 

I’m going to cheat a little bit on sports figure of the year and pick a team: the World Cup-winning US Women’s National Team (USWNT). I’m only partially picking them because they won the World Cup (though that final was damn fun to watch for an American soccer fan). Mostly, I found the team compelling throughout the year for the interesting questions they raised about power and possibilities in contemporary sport. Why can women’s soccer garner massive amounts of space in the media and popular culture (at least in North America) for the duration of a World Cup, but still be marginalized the rest of the year? Why did FIFA get away with the blatant sexism of requiring the women to play on artificial turf, even despite the active resistance of star women’s players? Why was the USWNT finally able to take a successful stand against playing on junk turf fields only at the very end of their “Victory Tour”? What does it mean that the demographics of the USWNT, particularly in regard to race and class, are so far from the demographics of the country? And what does it mean that one of the star players on the team spent much of the year embroiled in discussions of domestic violence of a type most often involving male athletes? Is this – with the whole stew of athletic excellence and socio-cultural complexity – progress?

–Andrew Guest wrote about the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the challenges of sports scholars who fight the “great sports myth.” He also writes about sport and society at the blog Sports & Ideas.

 

I have a tie in my nomination for sports peoples of the year. First is the US Women’s National Team, for making everyone dream and helping to cement the women’s World Cup as a major international sports event.
Tony Parker and the French national basketball team are also notable for their tenacity throughout September’s EuroBasket tournament, which defending champion France co-hosted. Les Bleus sailed through the first rounds, but lost a very close semi-final game to arch-nemesis Spain. After a night of insomnia replaying the nightmare in their heads, the team demonstrated leadership and mental toughness to pull off a solid bronze medal finish.
And honorable mention goes to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch for doing what nobody else previously did: launch a case against corruption in FIFA.
–Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff covered the EuroBasket tournament last September and wrote about Russia’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup. She wrote about the Women’s World Cup for Sports Illustrated‘s Planet Futbol blog.

 

For worse or much worse, I have to award this to Sepp Blatter. 2015 was the year that reality – and the law – finally caught up to delusion for the 79-year-old FIFA czar. Although dogged for years by corruption allegations, to say nothing of faux pas after faux pas, it seemed that Blatter may have actually believed that he was infallible.

To recap Blatter’s year: in late May, Swiss police arrested top officials as they gathered in their swanky hotel for their annual congress; two days later, at that same congress, Blatter was handed a fifth consecutive term as FIFA president; four days later, Blatter abruptly announced that he was resigning from the position, but would stay for 6-12 months until a successor was found; then, in September, Swiss police announced that Blatter himself was under investigation, causing FIFA to suspend him and multinational sponsors to call for his resignation; and finally, on December 21, FIFA announced an eight-year ban for Blatter for a breach of ethics.

While this tale doubtlessly will have more twists and turns, 2015 was certainly a year in which Blatter dominated world sports news. Additionally, and ignominiously, Blatter also served as the punchline for one of the best visual gags of the year, when comedian Simon Brodkin showered him with money at a press conference, while claiming to represent North Korea’s bid for the 2026 World Cup. The image of a peeved Blatter with US money fluttering around his head may end up being the lasting image of his controversial reign over FIFA.
Mark Norman reviewed John Branch’s biography of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard last January. He is editor of the blog Hockey in Society.

 

Even though I live little more than a mile from the Emirates Stadium, I have never been an Arsenal fan. I was first turned off by the “boring Arsenal” of the 1970s. They were a one-dimensional side who specialized in stifling the life out of their opponents, and I acquired an antipathy that the intervening years did little to shift.

But I think I am softening, and it’s all down to one player – Mesut Özil. He is currently in the form of his life. If he can keep it going till the end of the season, he will take Arsenal to their first premiership title since the “Invincibles” of 2004.

I first became enchanted by Özil when he played for Germany as a 21-year-old in the 2010 World Cup. Paradoxically, it was the ineffability of his skills that so attracted the eye. He didn’t offer the mesmerizing dribbles or blistering shots of a Ronaldo or a Messi. Rather, he specialized in vision. He sensed the fault lines in the opposition defence and thought of passes whose ingenuity took your breath away.

His World Cup performances prompted a move to Real Madrid, where he shone among the galácticos for three years. It was a shock to the Madrid fans when Özil left for Arsenal in 2013, apparently because he felt insufficiently appreciated by the management. Some of the Real players shared the fan’s displeasure. Christiano Ronaldo went public with his annoyance: “The sale of Özil is very bad news for me. He was the player who best knew my moves in front of goal.”

When he arrived at Arsenal, Özil took a while to assert himself. After starting well, he faded in the second half of his first season, and was then was injured for much of the next. But this season he has been dominant. He tends to avoid the vulgarity of scoring himself, even though he is an attacking midfielder, but he has more than twice the assists of any other player in the Premiership. Ronaldo’s loss has been Giroud, Sanchez, and Walcott’s gain.

It is only halfway through the season, but Arsenal are two points clear of Leicester City. If Özil can keep his form and fitness, it’s hard to see them ending anywhere but top. It would be a just reward for his subtle talents. And perhaps it will finally turn me into a Gooner.

–David Papineau contributed last spring to The Allrounder’s profile of cricket fans in America and wrote in the summer about Noam Chomsky, Bill Shankly, and the value of sport.