In a typical year, history is made by the winners.
Yet in this gutting, emotionally draining and hopefully anomalous last 12 months, the sports figures who will stick with us forever are not merely those who managed to hoist a trophy.
Instead, as the globe wrestled with a pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million people, and as the U.S. counted more than 330,000 of those deaths while grappling with the racism baked into its institutions, the athletes and coaches who intersected with these parallel scourges may leave the most lasting impression.
So, 2020 was a drag, right?
Certainly. It also surfaced the courageous and kind, the selfish and stubborn among us. Sports were no different.
THEY SAID IT:Our favorite quotes from the year
With that, a glimpse at 20 sports men and women for 2020 – from the gallant to the galling, and the many who, like all of us, learned an awful lot along the way:
How could we start anywhere else? As this novel coronavirus raged across the globe in early March, it was only starting to ripple onto our shores, portrayed through shaky footage of nursing-home residents getting transferred to ambulances near Seattle.
And then, Gobert tested positive for the virus.
The Utah Jazz center’s March 11 result was a jolt not only to the sports world – in subsequent hours, the NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL all would shut down – but to a country only then realizing what was to come. Ultimately, Gobert represented so many human elements of this virus – among the first “covidiots” after he jokingly “infected” reporters’ tape recorders, to the guilt of spreading the virus to teammate Donovan Mitchell and then rebuilding his friendship with the Jazz’s biggest star.
There’s a difference between seeing your livelihood idled and spending your time idly. For Osaka, the nearly five-month shutdown of the women’s tennis circuit due to the coronavirus meant plenty of time to ponder racial injustice while keeping her strokes sharp. The dual commitments of physical and emotional energy coalesced in August and September, when she won her second U.S. Open title in three years while centering larger issues.
Her pledge to sit out a day during an Open tune-up tournament in August after the shooting of Jacob Blake resulted in the tourney being paused in its entirety. And in Flushing Meadow, she donned a mask bearing the names of Black men and women killed by police or others, from Philando Castile, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin.
Days after the killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police, Burrow spoke out in a manner never before heard from a freshly-minted No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft: “The black community needs our help,” he said in a May 29 tweet. “They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.”
Two weeks later, Burrow, drafted No. 1 by the Cincinnati Bengals four months after leading LSU to a national title, signed a petition to end qualified immunity for police officers, an action that went beyond much of the rhetoric at the time.
There’s no going rogue against COVID-19; count Djokovic in the camp that may never learn. The world’s top-ranked men’s tennis player tried to stage a mini-tour in Europe when the rest of the sports world was shut down in June, with no social distancing among players or, yes, crowds. Djokovic, his wife and several other players all tested positive, then called criticism of him a “witch hunt.” His quest to win an 18th Grand Slam title ended when he was disqualified from the U.S. Open for angrily slamming a ball that struck a linesperson in the throat.
With a $93 million contract, two national titles and four championship-game appearances, Clemson’s head football coach answers to hardly anyone.
He made it clear in April that that includes infectious diseases.
As the totality of the pandemic came into focus, Swinney launched into a rambling soliloquy that sounded straight off a motivational poster he might hang behind his desk in the Tigers’ $55 million football complex.
“I have zero doubt we’re going to be playing,” he said on April 3, the same day Dr. Anthony Fauci told Fox News that there is “recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing.”
Don’t tell Dabo.
“The stands are going to be packed and the Valley is going to be rocking. I have zero doubt.”
To complete the coachspeak trifecta, he cited America “storming the beach at Normandy” and noting that “Tigers” stands for “This Is Gonna End Real Soon.”
Maybe for Swinney, who herded his family onto a private plane for a mid-March vacation as the rest of the nation was locking down. He also got his season, another national-title shot, and, of course, his paycheck. As for the sport at large? One hundred thirty-nine cancelled games, hundreds of infected players – some of them seriously – and dozens of mentally and physically compromised teams bypassing a bowl game suggested nothing has ended.
Her emotions emerged gradually at first, until the impact of doing the work as a Black athlete became too much. Then, as Short knelt amid tears during the national anthem before the Chicago Red Stars’ June 27 opener amid the NWSL’s Challenge Cup bubble, a supportive embrace came from teammate Julie Ertz, a powerful image that stood without context for several days.
Short and Ertz, also U.S. Women’s National teammates, eventually released a joint statement that detailed the team’s weeks-long quest for mutual understanding through “unapologetically authentic” conversations. “Where the pain goes,” they wrote, “our empathy goes…We will be the change. PERIOD.”
Sometimes, a movement truly starts with one. Hill, the veteran Milwaukee Bucks guard, was mentally and emotionally drained processing the police shooting of Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin while he and teammates were isolated in the NBA’s Florida bubble. On Aug. 26, Hill quietly informed his superiors he would not play in the team’s playoff Game 5 against the Orlando Magic, but word spread.
Soon, teammate Sterling Brown and assistant coach Darvin Ham would join him, followed by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. There would be no Game 5 that day, not for the Bucks and Magic nor the Thunder and Rockets and Lakers and Trail Blazers, who joined the strike in solidarity.
The WNBA, Major League Baseball – led by the Milwaukee Brewers – and Major League Soccer soon followed suit, hundreds of athletes pausing competition for introspection and to hold what many said were the “difficult conversations” among athletes of varying ethnicities, all in the service of understanding and equality.
Twenty-two years after winning his final championship with the Chicago Bulls, MJ owned the airwaves again in April and May, the 10-episode “Last Dance” documentary surfacing rare footage that either reaffirmed or rebutted so much Jordan legend and lore.
Notably, the documentary aimed to contextualize his infamous “Republicans wear shoes, too,” comment that boxed Jordan in as an apolitical figure who ultimately protected the bottom line. In an unscripted episode of life rebutting art, Jordan lent his voice to the Black Lives Matter chorus in the wake of the Floyd killing and in June announced a $100 million, 10-year commitment to organizations “dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education.”
The coach-athlete power dynamic in collegiate athletics may never flip, but in a year that further exposed the multi-billion dollar industry as reliant on unpaid, essential workers, those “employees” found cause to call out their superiors. For Hubbard, that moment came when a photo emerged, days after the Floyd killing, of his Oklahoma State coach, Mike Gundy, wearing a T-shirt of One America News Network, an outlet that boosts conspiracy theories and that Gundy had previously praised.
OAN also has called the Black Lives Matter movement a “farce” and a “criminal front group,” and Hubbard, a junior running back coming off a 2,000-yard season, tweeted the photo and said he “will not stand for this. This is completely insensitive to everything going on in society, and it’s unacceptable. I will not be doing anything with Oklahoma State until things CHANGE.”
A team meeting was convened, and Gundy and Hubbard later appeared in a video in which the coach said he he was “looking forward to making some changes, and it starts at the top with me.” Gundy’s contract was revised by the university following an internal review involving current and former players; Hubbard opted out of the season’s final two games and will enter the 2021 NFL draft.
Under owner Dan Snyder’s rule, Washington’s football team became a symbol of stubborn entitlement, clinging to an objectively racist name as revelations of a hostile work environment for women, who were subjected to sexual harassment throughout numerous levels of the franchise, came forth in a flurry this year.
As the team dropped its nickname and cleaned house in the front office, Snyder had no choice but put forth Rivera, the new coach as the franchise’s public face. Rivera, aiming to become the second Super Bowl-winning Latino coach in NFL history, handled it all – navigating a pandemic, listening to his players in a summer of racial reckoning and then tackling his August diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma. Rivera has beaten cancer and even has the temporarily-branded Washington Football Team in playoff contention, an inspiring piece of multi-tasking in an otherwise grim year.
He simply wanted NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its events, which it did. Yet NASCAR’s only Black full-time driver found himself plunged into an unrelenting news cycle two weeks later, when a noose was discovered in his garage before the circuit’s post-pandemic restart at Talladega.
That led to a touching episode of pre-race solidarity among drivers supporting Wallace, but an FBI investigation indicated the noose had been there since at least October 2019. That there wasn’t any apparently immediate malice did not change the basic facts: A noose was found in a garage.
Nonetheless, Wallace was tossed into the spin cycle like a pair of jeans, words like “hoax” and “conspiracy” tossed forth, leading to the boilerplate attack from the executive branch. Wallace completed the cycle as it started – touting a message of “love over hate, every day.”
They abided by more than 100 pages of protocols to overcome a bumpy start and complete a Major League Baseball season amid COVID-19. Yet minutes away from scattering for the winter, Turner, with the largest audience of the year looking on, flouted the most basic command in the book: Thou shalt isolate after testing positive.
Turner’s positive test for the coronavirus emerged as his Los Angeles Dodgers were just a few outs from cinching their first World Series title since 1988. His sudden disappearance from Game 6 was jarring, but not nearly as much as what happened next: Turner emerging from isolation to join his Dodgers teammates on the field for a photo, sans mask.
He kissed his wife. Hugged his teammates. And in skirting punishment, he and MLB put forth a dubious example of how to finish the job of pandemic management – particularly galling given all the work required to get the league that far.
Sometimes, your first instinct is the correct one. For Warren, taking over as Big Ten Conference commissioner after Jim Delany’s 30-year run, steering the league away from and then into a truncated season was a no-win trial by fire.
Even before conference presidents voted 11-3 not to play football this fall, the braying began. Nebraska coach Scott Frost said his program would look to a non-Big Ten schedule. Ohio State coach Ryan Day griped that a legitimate national championship team might be denied.
President Trump called Warren, eyeing some sweet swing-state bumps if he could restore football in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. And by mid-September, university presidents reversed course and approved a hastily-arranged schedule beginning in late October.
Was it worth it? Frost’s Huskers finished 3-5. Outbreaks ravaged Wisconsin and Michigan State and even Ohio State, which managed to win the conference title game despite 22 players sidelined, at least some of them due to COVID-19. The Buckeyes will get their playoff shot – even if their emaciated 5-0 record earned Swinney’s disingenuous ridicule.
As for Warren? He must curse Delany’s good fortune, knowing the exact time to hand over the gavel.
Pity the last guy to know.
From the moment Colin Kaepernick knelt to protest systemic racism, the action was conflated with disrespect for the military or any other ostensibly anti-American sentiments. With Floyd’s killing coming during a pandemic that gave many time to pause and listen, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell realized he and many others had badly misconstrued the blackballed quarterback’s intent.
That made it all the more jarring when Brees said in an interview with Yahoo Finance that he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States or our country.”
Suddenly, one of the game’s untouchables was getting torched by luminaries ranging from LeBron James to Aaron Rodgers and creating a significant rift with teammate Malcolm Jenkins, who posted a nearly five-minute rebuttal even after hashing things out with the New Orleans Saints quarterback. Brees eventually apologized – complete with Black and white handshake illustration – and acknowledged his comments “lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.”
Members of the ScrapYard Dawgs softball team, which included 11 players slated to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, didn’t think much of it when they stood for the national anthem before the opener of the USSSA World Fastpitch Championships on June 22. Yet they were blindsided when the team’s general manager, Connie May, posted a picture during the game showing them standing and tagging the president.
“Hey @realDonaldTrump,” the soon-deleted tweet read, “Pro Fastpitch being played live … Everyone standing for the FLAG!”
Watley, a 39-year-old two-time Olympian and softball legend, had their back, firing back that the tweet was unacceptable and setting the tone that the players would not accept the misrepresentation of their beliefs.
Soon, per The Undefeated, one of the team’s two Black players, Kelsey Stewart, texted Watley and asked, “How should I handle this?”
What resulted was all 18 team members walking out on the ScrapYard Dawgs, and forming the This Is Us softball team, whose stated mission includes supporting Black women in softball. Their donated jerseys feature the names of Black women pioneers in softball – including Watley’s.
A year in the life of King James is always extraordinary; to say he met the moment in 2020 might be an understatement.
In the weeks after Floyd’s killing, James gathered a coalition of athletes, entertainers and media figures to launch More Than A Vote, a non-profit designed to fight voter suppression, recruit poll workers and press teams and cities to use stadiums and facilities as polling places.
As the NBA entered its Florida bubble to finish the season, James remained at the center of it all, on and off the court. His Lakers would go on to win the championship in isolation, but not before the season withered in the wake of the Blake protests.
James and the Lakers walked out of a Players’ Association meeting convened during the wildcat strike, and ending the season was a real possibility. Ultimately, James gained an audience with team owners and received assurances arenas would be opened as polling places.
Next woman up.
Of all the surprise opportunities and benchmarks achieved within pandemic athletics, Fuller’s was perhaps the most unforeseen: A woman playing football in the Southeastern Conference. Yet when COVID-19 contact tracing compromised Vanderbilt’s kicking units, Fuller, a member of the Commodores’ SEC champion women’s soccer team, was tabbed to fill in. That she did, debuting with a second-half kickoff in a game the Commodores were shut out, and then kicking a pair of extra points against Tennessee.
Trailblazer? Certainly. She was soon hailed as the first woman to score in a Power 5 conference game, although April Goss (Kent State) and Katie Hnida (New Mexico State) had preceded her in Division I/bowl subdivision play. Naturally, the haters came too, with cries of “publicity stunt” and exacting breakdowns of squib-kick semantics and special teams depth charts for a winless team.
“It’s insecure men,” Fuller told the Tennessean. “So scared and so nervous that there are women that can compete.”
How much did it matter for Brown, a Marietta, Georgia native, to be there for his community when protests in and around Atlanta grew pitched in the wake of Floyd’s killing?
So much that the Celtics guard drove 15 hours from Boston to Georgia to help lead and organize.
Brown, at 23 already a vice president of the National Basketball Players’ Association, said in September that the country needs more than mere reform.
“I’ve advocated and spoken about things I’ve felt strong about since before I was drafted,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “Responsibility is the right word. But at this point, it’s just who I am. I’ve always been aware.”
With WNBA players long ahead of the game when it comes to athlete activism, members of the Atlanta Dream were well-prepared to respond when one of their team’s co-owners, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, positioned herself as a virulent opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement as her reelection campaign kicked into gear.
What happened next was dramatic and powerful. Dream players and their WNBA sisters, at the suggestion of Sue Bird, donning “Vote Warnock” shirts in support of Rev. Raphael Warnock’s campaign for Loeffler’s Senate seat.
The positions were well-staked: Loeffler called Black Lives Matter a “Marxist organization” that threatened to “destroy America.” Williams, a member of the Dream since 2016, responded in kind.
“The end game is still seeing effective social justice change,” said Williams. “Something we’ve talked about is the importance of voting and its role in the democratic process. It just so happened that Reverend Warnock was running in this specific seat, and he also supports Black Lives Matter and all that we as players have been fighting for.”
The fight continues: Loeffler and Warnock are headed to a January runoff that may decide control of the Senate.
Forcing a trade and forging a super-team isn’t so easy in a pandemic. Harden found that out this month when he skipped out on the Houston Rockets’ training camp and instead gallivanted at a party in Atlanta, a power move that in past years might have moved the needle in Harden’s efforts to get moved to Brooklyn or Philadelphia.
Instead, the explicit violation of the league’s COVID-19 protocols sent him into quarantine.
Harden’s socializing occurred during the NBA’s six-day preseason quarantine period, delaying his intake process. He was fined $50,000 and would have missed the Rockets’ season-opener were it postponed for other coronavirus-related concerns. For now, after reportedly turning down an extension that would have paid him $50 million a season, he’ll play out the third year of his four-year, $171 million contract in Houston. While much of the NBA’s appeal lies in the palace dramas that unfold, there’s not much appetite for it this particular year.