1. Robert Griffin III
Of the three major American sports, football seems to be the toughest in which to predict the arc of a career. Injuries are ubiquitous, and the game is highly complex; even the most important players are working with 10 teammates at once. A guy who comes out of the gate fast might get hurt and never play again, or he might just not turn out to be as good as we thought he was, his weaknesses having been hidden by teammates or the strategic moves of a coach.
That being said, if Robert Griffin III doesn’t become a LeBron James-sized figure in American culture, I’ll be surprised.
Merely on the field, RGIII has exploded as a rookie, almost from day one becoming one of the NFL’s most thrilling and innovative players. Quarterbacks as smart as he is aren’t supposed to move that way; quarterbacks who move that way aren’t supposed to have that accuracy and power. Off the field, he has done the miraculous, turning one of the league’s most reviled and pathetic franchises, a team constantly hamstrung by a petty and dickish owner, into a vehicle of fun, appealing football. Washington, D.C. adores him with the love that only comes out of a resurrection. And he’s doing this as a black quarterback, one of the most racially and culturally under-the-microscope positions in sports.
Want a concrete measure of his icon status? Griffin’s jersey sold more this year than any other player’s jersey has ever sold in a single season. He’s 22.
2. Mike Trout
If Bryce Harper is baseball’s messy evolutionary future, Mike Trout is its perfected past and present. Trout doesn’t necessarily do anything differently than other baseball players; he just does it better. He does everything better. Trout might have had the most perfect season by a rookie in MLB history, coming in second in the MVP voting behind the first player to win a Triple Crown in 45 years, hitting .326/.399/.564, with 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases. He won the award given to baseball’s best fielding center fielder. And he’s on one of the best teams in the league. Mike Trout’s going to be a very fundamental part of baseball, and American sports, for a very long time, so start paying attention now.
3. Gabby Douglas
The others on this list are superstars, but not all of them are historically significant. Gabby Douglas is. In the 2012 Olympics, Douglas became the first woman of color of any nationality to win the individual gymnastics gold medal. As if that weren’t enough, Douglas also became the first American gymnast to win gold in both the team and individual events, instantly becoming the latest in a long line of American women to create their own legends at the Olympic Games. Beyond all of that hagiography, Douglas was just awesome and fun as hell to watch and the reason that people spent a month of the summer complaining about spoilers. They wanted to see her win without knowing it would happen, because it was too worthy a spectacle to feel like you were just catching up on.
4. Andy Murray
No sport has been so dominated by so few people for so long as tennis. Since February 2004, only three men — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — have held the #1 overall ranking. And for the last few years, a fourth, Andy Murray, has hung around the periphery, losing in Grand Slam finals and generally seeming undone by the forces of history, unlucky to be in the same game at the same time as those three guys. That all changed this year. First, after a heartbreaking loss to Federer at Wimbledon, Murray finally got over the hump; he made the best of his home-field advantage, taking the Olympics gold with a redemptive triumph over Federer. Then he beat Djokovic in a mindbending U.S. Open final, making him the first British man to win a major since 1936. Murray has finally established himself as a tennis player worthy of inclusion alongside Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and that means tennis could be the most exciting of any sport in 2013.
5. Kyrie Irving
Filling a LeBron-sized void in the LeBron-bereft city of Cleveland — come and look at both of our buildings! — is a tall task for any man. If you’re only 20 years old, well, then good luck. But Kyrie Irving has found for himself that rare sweet spot: he’s a hero to his town and a future household name as well as total catnip for NBA nerds. Why? Just watch that GIF a few times. Then consider that the guys he was slicing through were not just pros, but the members of the U.S. men’s national team, who he’d been brought in to practice against. Irving makes every game he plays in, even scrimmages, necessary viewing.
6. Rory McIlroy
2011 was the year that Rory McIlroy showed he could become great, but 2012 was the year that he actually achieved greatness. This year, McIlroy captured the #1 world ranking for the first time and won the PGA Championship by a record eight strokes, breaking a mark held previously by Jack Nicklaus. There was another element of significance to that second major win — it meant that he’d gotten two at a younger age than Tiger did. Golf is currently in a post-Tiger era, and McIlroy has at least partly begun to fill the space left by that fallen idol. He’s a star now, but whether he will become a legend like Tiger, an all-time great, is what we will soon find out.
7. McKayla Maroney
In a way, it’s a pity that McKayla Maroney will always be remember most for her “McKayla Is Not Impressed” face. Sure, it was hilarious and perfectly timed, and it captured a certain something about the Olympics that isn’t too often talked about — how much it might burn to watch a rival get the gold. But it also overshadowed what might’ve been the most impressive single athletic feat in the entire Games: Maroney’s basically perfect vault, shown in the GIF above, the one that literally dropped a judge’s jaw. The Olympic Games are an orgy of culture that can often overshadow the actual sports at hand; in Maroney’s case, let’s hope this isn’t true.
8. Ryan Lochte
There’s something about Ryan Lochte that makes him the commensurate American athlete. There’s the swagger that drips from basically every thing he does and says, that sense of not just invincibility but inevitability, a self-conception so narrow and simplistic that it does not even consider the possibility of failure. There’s his looks, which are Hollister-model-handsome but not intimidating, just chiseled enough, just relatable enough. There’s his dominance as a swimmer — great but not the greatest, terrific but not transcendent. And there’s his personality, which, however you feel about it, is at least earnest — you can think Lochte’s stupid, or a goofball, or a total bro, but you can’t call him insincere. Then there’s that dumb grill, pictured above. Like it or not, Ryan Lochte is America.
9. Jeremy Lin
Worlds are contained within Jeremy Lin. He represents the Asian-American cultural experience; what it means to be an athlete in New York City; what it means to be a human in New York City; what it’s like when a basketball player goes into a period of transcendence; what it’s like when sports take complete hold of our imagination. Being in New York during Linsanity was like being caught in the a superior gravitational pull — no matter who you were and whether you cared about basketball or not, you just kind of had to give in and go along with it. And if you did care about any of the things I just mentioned, then you were riveted in a way that you maybe never had been. Now, Lin’s with the Rockets, and he still captures the attention of basketball fans in a way that few players do. Lin will likely not become a Linsanity-level superstar again — though he could still turn out to be a very good NBA player — but he’ll still be a boon for the league, a unique player worth rooting for.
10. J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt likely won’t win MVP this year, but you could make an argument that he really should. And if there was an award for Most Innovative Player, Watt would have it locked up in a heartbeat. In the midst of dominating oppenents by the conventional measure for pass-rushers — he could break Michael Strahan’s record for most sacks in a single season — Watt has also turned himself into a pass-blocking machine unlike any the game’s seen before. With two games left, his 15 passes defensed is already a record for a lineman. Watt’s been a complete terror for opponent’s passing offenses, and it shows in the Texans’ record — at 12-2, the best in the AFC.
11. Alex Morgan
I will go to the mat against anyone who wants to argue with me that the United States Women’s National Team weren’t the most exciting representatives of America in the 2012 Olympics — yes, over the gymnasts; yes, over the swimmers; yes, over the basketball team; COME AT ME, BRO — and, along with Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan was a team leader and public face. The other two are vets, though, and this was Morgan’s first turn on the international stage of the Olympics. At age 23, she handled it brilliantly. Morgan will be the major face of U.S. women’s soccer going forward, a hero and icon for millions across the country.
12. R.A. Dickey
R.A. Dickey is a character out of a novel, which is fitting, considering he also proved with his recent memoir that he might be the best writer of any professional athlete. At 38 years old, the Tennessee native and Lord of the Rings fan turned from a mediocre-to-good pitcher into a 20-game winner, Cy Young recipient, and the treasured centerpiece of a moribund franchise — which was then forced to trade him to Toronto because he was such a big star they no longer fit in the budget, setting him up for a run at the World Series with a newly turbocharged team that will have an entire country of baseball fans behind it. 2012 was a book with R.A. Dickey as its protagonist, but the sequel might be even better.
13. Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper is bringing bombast back to baseball. A sport once dominated by loudmouths and eccentrics like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Pete Rose, baseball has become fairly homogenous lately, less likely to produce memorable characters than the NBA and NFL. Harper got people to notice baseball. He coined the phrase “that’s a clown question, bro”; he hit with furious aggression and fielded as though he were a lion chasing antelope. Along with Stephen Strasburg, he’s made the Nationals, a previous nonentity, into one of the MLB’s most fascinating teams. And this rookie of the year is a rookie in the most fundamental way: he’s still only 20 years old.
14. James Harden
James Harden had a two-part superstar rise: first, he became an indispensable and beloved sixth man for the the thrilling Oklahoma City Thunder. Second, he was traded to the Houston Rockets, where he’s the alpha dog, one the league’s deadliest and most effective scorers. It’s that transition from the first to the second roles that makes him such an intriguing guy to follow going forward.
He also has a big beard.
15. Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner is the best player in women’s college basketball. Her school, Baylor, won the national championship in 2012, and she won the player of the year award, as well as making the All-American team for the third time in three years. But beyond that, Griner is a superstar for what she’s had to put up with: for years, idiots and charlatans have joked and harassed, with varying degrees of seriousness and malice, that Griner played like, and therefore was like, a man. Griner is not a man; instead, she’s a woman challenging ideas about what women are capable of. For that, she has to withstand the most infuriating kinds of namecalling and slander. She brushes it aside and continues to dominate.
16. Clint Dempsey
In soccer terms, Clint Dempsey has been huge for a minute now — he was one of the better players in the English Premier League last year, a major acquisition for Tottenham Hotspur. And for a long time he’s been significant to the United States Men’s National Team; he played and scored in both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. But it wasn’t until 2012 that Dempsey assumed a more symbolic mantle, surpassing Landon Donovan as the United States’ most important men’s soccer player thanks to his own fantastic goal-scoring and Donovan’s shirking of the role. It’s on Dempsey’s shoulders that America’s frustrating and inconsistent soccer hopes now lie, and it’s hard to know whether we should envy or pity him that honor, because that’s never been an easy role to occupy. Dempsey’s never been one to back down, though, and I don’t see him doing it now.
17. Andrew Luck
Let us count the ways in which Andrew Luck was set up to fail:
1. He talked about as the only can’t-miss player in the 2012 NFL Draft;
2. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, the worst team in the NFL in 2011.
3. He stepped into a void left by arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game of football and, worse yet, a quarterback who would be mounting his own comeback in Denver during Luck’s freshman season.
Yet, here we are: the Colts only need one more win to make the playoffs, and Luck has established himself as a franchise player. He’s also served as a visible leader and motivator for a squad that is playing while its head coach undergoes treatment for leukemia. If Luck played in a major market, he’d be a cultural phenomenon on par with Robert Griffin; as is, he’ll have to settle for being a really good and well-compensated football player.
18. Mo Farah
When a country hosts the Olympics, its hometown heroes take on a burden. The microscope is on their country, and it’s up to them to do it proud. And this year, you could say that none did Great Britain prouder than Mo Farah. Farah picked the perfect time to become the first Briton to win a distance-running gold at the Olympics, and not only did he do it once, he did it twice, winning both the 5,000- and 10,000-meters, making him only the second runner to accomplish such a feat. In the course of doing this, he also just looked really cool, and ran away from a lot of things, including but not limited to other racers.
19. Ricky Rubio
Rubio, a point guard, has been a star in his native Spain since he was a teenager, and almost immediately upon arriving in the NBA on the Timberwolves, his spot blew up here thanks to 1) his adorably goofy demeanor, and 2) the fact that he can see the future. Or at least, seeing the future is the only logical explanation for how the passes he throws seem to find their way through forests of defenders before arriving to teammates who only realized after the ball hit them in the hands that they were in perfect position to score.
20. Andrew McCutchen
Center fielder McCutchen plays a sport where players have always been talked about in terms of the numbers they produce, and his numbers are tremendous — but they don’t do him justice. He’s skinny and quick, but hits with incongruous power; he’s so explosive that it takes a while to notice how fundamentally sound he is. Pittsburgh is a dedicated sports town, and if the Pirates ever reach the heights that the Steelers and Penguins have, it’ll be McCutchen who leads the way.
21. Russell Wilson
Before the season Russell Wilson was known by NFL fans mostly for being short: 5’10” or 5’11”. In normal American society, 5’11” makes you average-sized; among professional football quarterbacks like Peyton Manning (6’5”) and Tom Brady (6’4”), it makes you a curiosity. Despite his accuracy, intelligence, and mobility, he fell to the third round. Quickly realizing the type of player that they had, the Seahawks installed Wilson as their starting QB halfway through the preseason. He’s been superb ever since, throwing more touchdowns than Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and helping the Seahawks become one of the league’s best teams. Add his boyish handsomeness and reputation as an off-the-field mensch, and you have a name in lights.