“I’m just glad that no longer are we looked down upon, not only by the sport industry, but by the performing arts industry,” Cena told Variety on Tuesday night in Beverly Hills at Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year Awards, where the “Bumblebee” star received the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award.
Recognized by Sports Illustrated for his efforts that go beyond the WWE ring, Cena involves himself with the Make-A-Wish Foundation (granting over 500 wishes) as well as anti-bullying, equality, cancer awareness, and support of the troops causes.
“I think nowadays, athletes are understanding that and literally it’s all just sports entertainment,” Cena said, “Which I am very grateful for because years ago I wouldn’t have been any way legitimized by sport.”
2018 National League MVP, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, was on hand to present the performer of the year to Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. Yelich acknowledged that it was an extremely difficult year for the community he grew up in.
“I’m from Thousand Oaks and I’ve been to the bar where the shooting happened,” said Yelich of his efforts with California Strong. “It hit close to home and being from the area, it felt like a sense of duty to step up and just try to help people out when they needed it the most.”
With six big league seasons under his belt, the rising baseball superstar understands how the role of an athlete requires the ability to contribute off the field. “We’re fortunate enough to be in a position to where we can impact people’s lives positively,” Yelich said, “And if you use that platform in the right way, you can do a lot of good for a lot of people. I think that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
SI also honored New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara with the breakout of the year award.
“You get recognized for all the things that you do on the field, but it’s really what you do off the field that’s fulfilling,” Kamara said.
Kamara also praised Colin Kaepernick. “It takes a special person to be able to do that, to basically sacrifice their livelihood for the sake of the progress,” he said.
Coming off their third NBA Championship in four years, the Golden State Warriors were named sportsperson of the year, with the team’s owners Peter Guber and Joe Lacob accepting the award on behalf of the organization. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant took time before their game against the Toronto Raptors to send a message from the team’s facility in Oakland.
Other honorees included gymnast Rachael Denhollander (inspiration of the year award) and 13-year-old swimmer Leah Hayes (sportskid of the year award).
The 2018 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards air on NBCSN on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.