NO ONE CALLED out the unclothed emperors in sports this year with more skill than John Oliver, host of HBO's Last Week Tonight. In one show it was the shamateurism of college athletics; in another, the scam that billionaire owners run to get taxpayers to pay for new stadiums; in still another, the crypto-gambling heart of the daily fantasy sports industry; in a string of others, FIFA and its capo, Sepp Blatter (whose explication to Americans is a task Oliver, an expatriate Brit, regards as a sacred duty).
Perhaps it takes a foreigner to fully frame outrages to which Americans have become inured. Or maybe it just takes a lifelong Liverpool fan. Liverpool is a club that has known outsized portions of glory, frustration and tragedy; in short, it's a team you can't follow without at some point asking yourself big questions that usually begin with "Why?" Which is what Oliver does with sports at large, only in front of about four million viewers each week and tens of millions more on YouTube.
Oliver's sports segments work because the four trained journalists on the Last Week Tonight staff take the time to build cases so strong that rebuttal is futile. Audiences sat for that 20-minute NCAA takedown, and the 19 minutes the show spent on those loathsome stadium schemes, because every reference to accounting chicanery or tax-exempt municipal bonds is leavened by a sensibility honed at Oliver's previous office, the snark tank that was Jon Stewart's Daily Show.
It's not that Oliver doesn't love sports; it's that he loves sports so much that in gallantry and indignation, he rushes headlong to their defense. And he loves nothing more than soccer. FIFA is "an international crime syndicate that occasionally organizes soccer matches." If you're going to stage a World Cup in Qatar, you might as well do it on the sun—"although to be fair, the sun has a much better human rights record."
But Oliver does his greatest service when he straps on a pith helmet to look at sports in the country he has called home for nine years. As increasingly obscene sums slosh around college sports and players still can't count on something as simple as a guaranteed scholarship, he reminded us that Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney makes $3 million a year and has trademarked his name for use on shirts.
When Oliver revealed an anagram from Dabo Swinney's name, #SoybeanWind went viral. The fruited breeze conjured by that hashtag is as fresh a breath of air as any emitted by a sports media figure all year.
THE YEAR IN HOT TAKES
"Steph Curry's kid is cute. That doesn't mean she should have been at presser. There are professionals on deadlines there w/jobs to do, too."
—Brett Friedlander, Star News Online, on Twitter
FREDERICK M. BROWN/GETTY IMAGES (OLIVER)
GERALD HERBERT/AP (CURRY)