Needless to say, 2020 was a year like none we have experienced before. So it comes as no surprise that many of the defining sports moments of the year followed suit. While there were the usually improbable comebacks and championship crowning moments, they were far outnumbered by the intersection of athletes facing real-life events. 2020 in sports was defined by lines being crossed and norms being shattered. Here is a look at the most inspirational moments of the sporting year from across the globe.
To end 2020, Djokovic became the second player to spent 300 days at number one. But he opened the year by going through the gauntlet at the Australian Open. He fought through a rash of mid-match ailments that pulled into question if the 33-year-old Serb would be able to finish in the Finals. Ultimately, he overcame Dominic Thiem in five sets and won his fifth-consecutive Grand Slam tournament and eight Australian Open titles overall.
The disparity in pay within the most famous women’s professional league in America has long been evident. But 2020 finally saw the WNBA accomplish gains for its players, in the areas of pay and benefit equity. As a result of the new collective bargaining agreement, the average salary for players increased into the six-figure range. Additional benefits included salary guarantees during maternity leave, expanded travel amenities, and a 50/50 revenue split starting in 2021.
As the death of NBA icon Kobe Bryant rocked the world at large, all eyes turned towards the franchise he spent two decades with. On January 31st, just five days after his tragic passing, LeBron James addressed delivered a speech dedicated to Bryant ahead of their first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death. "I want to continue along with my teammates to continue his legacy not only for this year but for as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want. So, in the words of Kobe Bryant, Mamba out. But in the words of us, not forgotten. Live on brother.”
On February 2nd, Sowers made history when she became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl. The 34-year-old served as an offensive assistant for the 49ers and in the process also became the first openly gay coach in the game as well. Sowers is the second female coach in NFL history but has since been followed by four more women since joining the league in 2017.
Two months after the brakes were slammed on the global sports world amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Germany a pathway towards the resumption of competition was finally made. May 26th , Bayern Munich faced Dortmund, in the Bundesliga league, the first professional sporting event since the pandemic set in. Bayern won the match 1-0, but most importantly, set in motion the idea that sports would be able to resume in 2020.
Amid the rising tensions of racial injustice roared across the country and the globe, NASCAR united behind its lone black driver, Bubba Wallace. Wallace provided a stark contrast to the usual tone of the southern-rooted NASCAR environment, calling for the removal of the Confederate flag at events and displaying support of the Black Lives Matter movement on his car. On May 25th, following the discovery of a rope that resembled a noose in his garage at Talladega Speedway, drivers pushed Wallace’s car to the front of the field, while others walked behind him a show of support and solidarity.
The calls for the shift of professional and college teams named after Native-American iconography are nothing new. However, 2020 saw a major move finally be forced in the call for the end of such imagery. Following increased pressure from sponsors and stakeholders, Washington owner Daniel Snyder finally relented and dropped the previous Redskins name and logo from his team. A placeholder of simply ‘The Washington Football Team’ was used until a new name can be decided.
Following a prolonged battle between league owners and the MLBPA, the first pitch of the MLB season finally took place on July 23rd. At stadiums around the nation, Major League Baseball displayed a black MLB logo on scoreboards and an MLB/BLM logo adorned pitching mounds. Ahead of the games, many players held a black ribbon in unity, while some knelt during the National Anthem. Throughout the year, players wore a variety of patches on their sleeves in support of a more unified front within the game going forward.
On July 21st , Nakken became the first woman to coach on-field in an MLB game. Nakken served as first base coach during an exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. A four-time All-American softball player at Sacramento State, she joined the Giants organization in 2014 but ascended to a full-time coaching capacity for the first time in 2020.
A good old fashioned, improbable comeback out of nowhere never goes out of style. Bard last appeared in an MLB game in 2013, but the loss of control over his pitches nearly ended his career. After bouncing around the edges of the minors for a few years, he retired in 2017 but attempted one last comeback during spring training. Miraculously, he had rediscovered his control and velocity and returned with the Colorado Rockies. Over 24.3 innings, Bard converted six saves in route to winning NL Comeback Player of the Year.
At Disney World and the IMG Academy, respectively, the leagues finished their 2019-20 seasons inside of isolated, controlled ‘bubbles’ to protect the players from the plague of COVID-19. Inside the environments, the leagues also reinvented their image to display the social justice concerns of their players. Black Lives Matter appeared on the courts, while players wore statements of support for the issues happening in the outside world. The moves were a divisive, yet powerful statement from the most predominately African-American professional leagues in America.
Three days after the police shooting of Wisconsin resident Jacob Blake, the state’s representative in the NBA said enough is enough. Just ahead of Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, the Bucks refused to leave their locker room and boycotted the game. The move brought the entire NBA season to a halt and spread to other leagues and sports around the world, as athletes used their position in a way never before seen to draw attention to their refusal to allow the games to draw attention away from the real issues of the day.
The reach of the protests against police brutality and racial inequity reached far beyond American shores. Having already conquered Formula One racing on the road, Lewis Hamilton turned his attention to using his podium to highlight issues away from it as well. The only black driver in the 70-year history of F1, Hamilton pulled the sport into the mix when he took a knee and wore t-shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and justice for Breonna Taylor. When reprimanded for the political-based move, Hamilton pushed back by condemning the silence on the matters within F1.
The 23-year-old tennis star showed maturity beyond her years when she used her run towards capturing the U.S. Open title to call attention to the rash of racially-based violence that was sweeping the nation. Before matches, Osaka regularly wore masks featuring names of the various victims of police brutality. She also used her interview time to speak about the issues, as opposed to just discussing the march towards her second career title in the event.
For many years, the lack of African-American quarterbacks in the NFL has drawn a skeptical eye at how opportunity is doled out within the league. However, the opening weekend of the 2020 season saw some history be made, as a record-setting ten African-Americans started at the position. Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray, Deshawn Watson, Cam Newton, Teddy Bridgewater, Dwayne Haskins Jr, and Tyrod Taylor comprised the group. Later in the year, Jameis Winston, Jalen Hurts, and P.J. Walker joined the ranks as well.
Representation matters and, in few places, does it make as visual of an impact as in the NHL, a league that features only 3% minority presence of any kind. When the Los Angeles Kings selected Quinton Byfield with the second pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, it represented both a moment in history and a shot at impacting the future. Byfield became the highest-drafted black player in league history and will head to a major market where his star potential will be easily to take notice of.
On the front end of the season, the drive for the Lakers was to bounce back from a disappointing first year of the LeBron James era in L.A. However, following the death of Kobe Bryant, the mission took on a personal motive. L.A. was the dominant force within the Bubble, with only one of their playoff series lasting as long as six games. Both James and Anthony Davis averaged 27 points per game in the playoffs, as they won their 17 th World Championship with a determination that was fueled by memorializing the Mamba’s memory.
The undefeated, Lightweight champion of the world made a passionate return to the Octagon, just months after his father and lifelong trainer, Abdul, passed due to complications from COVID-19. His face-off at UFC 254 against interim Lightweight champ Justin Gaethje lasted into just the second round, with Khabib winning via submission. Following the bout, the usually stoic Nurmagomedov broke down in tears due to the emotion of the moment and announced his retirement via a dedication to his departed father. It was a powerful moment of the collision of sports excellence, but the damage done via the pandemic.
Largely devoid of hosting live events, many arenas around the country dedicated their resources to becoming polling locations in the November general elections. Multiple major pro teams dedicated their venues to the cause, with the ‘supercenters’ playing a part in the record-setting turnout at the polls. Such initiatives were also pushed by organizations such as ‘More Than a Vote’, a group led by LeBron James that advocated for greater access to the polls and easier voting regulations to ensure involvement.
Nearly two years since a gruesome leg injury not only threatened his career but also his life, Alex Smith made an incredible return to the field. The Washington Football Team quarterback returned to action after an injury to starter Kyle Allen, against the Los Angeles Rams. Smith completed 9-of-17 passes on the afternoon, but most importantly showed provided one of the greatest shows of resolve in recent memory. The 36-year-old underwent 36 surgeries before returning to the field in 2020.
The Miami Marlins made history when Kim Ng was promoted to General Manager on November 13. The move made Ng the highest-ranking woman in U.S. professional sports, but also triggered a string of significant fires. She became the first woman General Manager of a major North American sports team, as well as the first person of East Asian descent to hold the position.
Due to COVID-19 infections dramatically impacting the Vanderbilt football team, Fuller was brought over on loan from the University soccer team. When she kicked off against the Missouri Tigers in the second half, she became the first woman to play in Power Five football game. The following week, she kicked an extra point in the first quarter, she made history again by becoming the first woman to score in a Power Five game.
At the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, Grosjean walked away from one of the most terrifying crashes in F1 history. Grosjean’s car collided with the race barrier traveling at 137 mph, splitting in half in the process and catching fire. Grosjean endured the flames for 28 seconds, before exiting the wreckage on his own. Miraculously, he suffered only second-degree burns and broke no bones.
In December of 2019, the Philadelphia Flyers forward announced he had been diagnosed with a rare bone disease called Ewing’s sarcoma. After completing chemotherapy in July, he signed a three-year extension with the Flyers and was able to return to the ice for playoffs, due to the extension of the season. In December –369 days after his initial announcement— Lindblom announced that he been deemed cancer-free.
One of the more heartwarming moments of the year came when Tiger Woods and his 11-year-old son Charlie competed together at the PNC Championship. The father-son duo showed up in the customary red that adorns a Woods’ Sunday appearance, with the younger Woods’ showing the same type of competitive flair that his father has made famous. Charlie became the youngest competitor in the tournament’s history, as the pair shot -7 for the tournament.
Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.