I love lists. I create to do lists endlessly, sometimes adding things I’ve already done just so I can cross something off before I start.
My favorite lists are those at each year’s end – the best of’s, the top 10 this, and the top 20 that. Books, television shows, movies, restaurants – it doesn’t matter: I will read every single one and even compose a few of my own, all of which usually revolve around sports.
But what to do with 2020, a year that saw sports come to a screeching halt in the wake of a global pandemic, and then claw its way back in ways we hadn’t seen before – a mix of shortened seasons and cancelled games, an example of America’s mixed priorities as we watched football teams take to the field while so many students had to stay home?
We do what we have been doing for most of 2020, and will be doing far into 2021: the best we can, sifting through all that did happen, from the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl win to Tom Brady signing with the Buccaneers, to see what emerges as particularly momentous and especially meaningful.
Let’s begin at the beginning: the death of Kobe Bryant serves as a marker for just how long 2020 has been, and demonstrates, too, how the most important moments of sports aren’t always celebratory. Bryant’s legend was a complicated one, a greatly flawed individual whose legacy includes a sexual assault trial, extensive charity work, overt support for female ballers, and high-profile “girl dad” magic. The grief expressed by Los Angeles – a city that would see both the Lakers and the Dodgers grab titles this year – quickly became national heartache, as we were left wondering what the next act of the phenom could have been.
The next act of Kim Ng is something to look forward to in 2021. Whatever form and shape baseball may take, the Miami Marlins’ hiring of Ng, the first and only woman to grab the title of general manager in Major League Baseball, is a moment that inspired both “it’s about time” celebrations while wondering “why did it take so long?” As Ng steps up to bat for the Marlins, a team that may have finally found its stability in Derek Jeter, we can hope that her historic first serves as the foundation for real visibility for women in front offices across sports.
And if we are talking about female trailblazers in 2020 (and why wouldn’t we?), Naomi Osaka sits at the top of the list for me. Osaka’s campaign through the US Open, in which she donned a mask inscribed with the name of a black victim of violence, created riveting must-see-tv sports, as we tuned in to each of her seven matches to see which name she had chosen, and what she might say about it. Amidst the strong political stances taken by athletes in the WNBA and the NBA, Osaka, who passed Serena Williams to become the biggest female earner in sports this year, showed us how to pack a quiet stand with a big punch.
Osaka’s $37 million in earnings means that for the first time since 2016, more than one woman has occupied a top-100 spot on the highest-paid athletes list. And at the end of the day, that is really where the focus for sports in 2020 should be: the money.
For so long, sports have been considered a rare recession-proof economy, but COVID-19 unraveled a lot of what we thought we knew about money and sports. From the billion-dollar decision to cancel March Madness to the billions at stake with the postponement of the Olympics, money sat in the driver seat of sports in unprecedented ways this year, vividly showing us the tensions between doing what was right for public health and doing what was needed for economic survival. Concession stand workers and arena ticket takers joined the millions of Americans in the virtual unemployment lines, standing in stark contrast to the salaries of athletes who returned to the court and the field, and the networks who brought them into our homes.
The road back from this odd year of sport looks to be a long one, but perhaps by taking a look back – at these moments and so many others – we can start to find our way forward.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhatanville college and is the author of ONE GOAL: a coach, a team, and the game that brought a divided town together, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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