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While 2017 had the exact same number of champions that every year has, it was a year in sports where ultimately the winners weren’t the winners. In fact, it seems like winning didn’t even matter in 2017. I’ve got some theories why that’s the case.

The Death of Stick to Sports

As Monica McNutt captured in her piece back in October, 2017 was the year that the notion of athletes “sticking to sports” died. All year, coaches and athletes continued the conversation about topics viewers couldn’t see in the box score: white privilege, race relations in America, and the country’s direction under the current administration.

While many athletes in the NFL continued to take a knee, they received support from athletes in other American leagues, including the NBA & MLB and from other teams around the world. Those athletes who have not taken a knee have continued to be incredibly outspoken, backing their words up with actions in their communities, state houses, and Capitol Hill.

The issue has also divided fans as well. While many (including myself) are in favor of athletes speaking their mind and protesting, others are not as accepting. Videos surfaced of fans of across America burning their NFL jerseys and paraphernalia. Fans on both sides of the argument vowed to boycott the NFL, which factored in the declining attendance and TV ratings. The owners and the NFL have engaged in debate on how to support the players but how to also stop the kneeling.

Meanwhile, President Trump continued to attack players who have kneeled, and the NFL for not punishing them. Because of the President’s twitter fingers, the question of “Will championship teams go to the Oval Office?” will continue throughout this administration.

In a recent interview, Kareem Abdul Jabbar commented, “Many athletes are no longer satisfied with taking the money and running home to hide out in their mansions. They want to fully embrace their responsibility as role models to children and representatives of their communities to speak out whenever America veers off the road paved by the U.S. Constitution.”

As we turn the page on 2017, I look forward to seeing the evolution of this new generation of athlete-activist in the mold of Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Jackie Robinson.

We will remember the losers more than we will remember the champions.

2017 brought the Astros winning their first World Series, the Warriors avenging the Cavs to win their second NBA title in 3 years, and the Patriots cementing their dynasty with a fifth Super Bowl. However, I think we will remember 2017’s losers and their collapses more than we will remember who actually won.

Two of these teams stand out in particular:

1. The Atlanta Falcons second half meltdown in Super Bowl LI

When Robert Alford returned a Tom Brady interception 82 yards to put the Falcons up 21-0 before halftime of Super Bowl LI, most people thought the game was a wrap. Fox’s talking head Skip Bayless declared the Falcons Super Bowl champions before Lady Gaga took the stage. He had good reason to, as the Falcons were dominating every facet of the game in the first half. The Falcons pushed the lead to 28-3 midway through the third quarter.

The Brady-led Patriots have been known to stop at nothing to win, but 25 points in a Super Bowl is unassailable, right? Wrong.

The Patriots scored a touchdown to make the score 28-9—still a massive spread—and the momentum entirely changed. Tom Brady started doing Tom Brady things, and the team realized that the impossible could be possible. Meanwhile, the Falcons slowly combusted. A key fumble in their own territory, wasted timeouts, and questionable playcalls contributed to the Patriots rallying back to tie the game at 28, and sending it to overtime.

When the Patriots got the ball first in overtime, it seemed almost inevitable. As expected, they methodically marched down field and scored a touchdown to win the game 34-28.

In the aftermath, the conversation centered on how the Falcons lead got flipped, turned upside down. Coaches and players were taken to task by the fans and media. The first question about Super Bowl LI won’t be “How ‘bout them Patriots?” but rather “What the heck happened?”

Speaking of “What happened?”

2. The U.S. Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup

The USMNT faced Trinidad and Tobago in the final match in their campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Four days earlier, the United States resoundingly beat Panama 4-0 in what looked like the turning point of an otherwise dismal qualifying campaign.

It finally looked like the team would book their ticket to Russia. Just beat the worst team in CONCACAF. Simple enough, right!?

What followed was another collapse of epic proportions. A catastrophic own goal put the United States down 1-0. Shortly after, a long range missile that should have been saved by the once “Secretary of Defense” Tim Howard, ended up in the back of the net to make it 2-0 for T&T. American wunderkind Christian Pulisic responded to make it 2-1, but the team continued to look flat and lethargic. Meanwhile fluky and phantom goals across the rest of CONCACAF helped seal our doom.

In the easiest qualifying group in the world, the USMNT had somehow managed to not qualify. The first time in 20 plus years! Like the Falcons, this team was lambasted by the media and fans, but unlike in Atlanta, it led to major shake ups in leadership and approach.

2017: Where fans and teams alike have started to embrace tanking.

In 2014, the Houston Astros were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, who declared them the “2017 World Series Champions.” Their cover story focused on how the Astros rebuilt their roster by trading away their best players, using analytics to evaluate prospects, who would ultimately form the core of the team. This approach came to fruition in Game 7, when the Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the World Series.

It’s the same mold that the Chicago Cubs used in their 2016 title. And in the NBA, Philadelphia 76ers fans with enough patience to trust the process are starting to see some results.

Because of these successes, the concept of tanking (purposefully losing in order to get higher draft picks) has become a common practice in 2017. While cheering for your team to lose early and often might seem strange, fans have started to buy into the concept. Tanking has given fans of all teams something to potentially cheer for and debate. While every personnel division is not built equally (see Browns, Cleveland) there is a chance that a terrible team (see Browns, Cleveland) could be champions in the near future.

Looking ahead to 2018

This winter, we’ll see world class Olympians put it all on the line in PyeongChang. In March, we’ll watch as a Final Four whittles down to just one shining moment. Spring may bring us a return of Tiger at Augusta. Summer will see an NBA Playoffs with a potential fourth Warriors/Cavs matchup. And, the biggest sporting event of all, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is looming.

You can’t keep winners down for long. So, get ready for the resurgence of winning in 2018. Game on!

Gavin Lippman

Baltimore native who is always searching for that next adventure and a new story to tell.

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