Opinion / 20 December 2019, 08:00am / Mark Keohane
CAPE TOWN – Everywhere in the world, this time of the year is dominated with sportsmen and women of the year.
If one follows the respective sporting codes closely, most awards winners are predictable in that they confirm the player of the year, the players’ player of the year, the fans’ player of the year, the newcomer of the year, the rookie of the year, the breakthrough performance of the year, and so the list goes on.
You only have had to monitor the on-field performances to know who is going to win.
Most would argue, predictable or not, annual awards are a tradition that have to be maintained because it recognises the achievements of the best individuals and teams. It also in a way gives closure to the year and bookends a season, so that it all starts from scratch in January.
The award that caught my eye this week was a New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association (NZRPA) gong. The organisation has a top award for “Personal Development”.
What a remarkable award because it extends beyond the player’s on-field contribution.
The former All Blacks and Kiwi dual international Sonny Bill Williams was among the nominees.
Williams is one of my favourite sporting individuals. I follow him on social media and I have been as inspired by his off-field contribution to society as I have been with any of his famed offloads in the tackle.
Williams, who in the past decade has at his peak been the best league player in the world and among the best in rugby union, was applauded for his devotion to the Muslim community, with special reference to his action after the Christchurch mosque shootings on March 15, which killed 50 people.
He was also commended for completing his Bachelor of Applied Management qualification and for his example to the Pacific Island community. Williams is New Zealand-born of Samoan heritage, who converted to Islam in 2009.
Williams was a nominee but did not win the top award. This went to young Chiefs rugby player Laghlan McWhannell because of his work off the field. This included The WaterBoy charity, learning to scuba dive, completing levels one and two with World Rugby coaching, helping out with the Waikato under-14 and under-15 rugby camps, learning the piano and barista skills and his public speaking with the Korero Bro Suicide and Wellbeing panel.
Another Chiefs player, Canada’s World Cup captain Tyler Ardron, was nominated for completing his level two coaching with World Rugby, taking French lessons, getting his restricted motorcycle licence, the personal development sessions he led with the Canadian team at the World Cup in Japan and for how he led the Canadian team helping with the clean-up effort after Typhoon Hagibis.
The final nominee was Hurricanes’ James Blackwell, 24, who graduated from Victoria University in Wellington with a Bachelor of Commerce in Business Administration and Management while playing Super Rugby, and who taught young players about the demands of professional rugby and financial education.
Many New Zealand players were also commended for their public stance on suicide among youngsters, of depression and mental well-being among sports people, and for combining to advance the cause that it is not a crime to be mentally ill.
Sports people have such powerful platforms on social media and can positively influence so much within communities and among their followers. If ever there is an award that should carry gravitas, it is this Personal Development Award, and it is one I’d love to see introduced for South Africa’s sporting elite.
There are so many South African sports professionals making an immense contribution away from the field of play and next year, I’d like to see them honoured in the way we do their on-field exploits.