Sport jumps the shark right into 2022
When I heard that the Brooklyn Nets had called up Kyrie Irving to their active roster, I considered it to be the equivalent of the infamous moment when a water-skiing Fonzi – leather jacket and all – jumped over a shark on a very special episode of Happy Days. That moment, of course, coined the phrase “jumping the shark,” symbolizing any outlandish attempt to save something already in steady decline.
Suddenly the Nets’ front office, which benched Irving in early October when he refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine, making him ineligible to play on his home court, as well as in Madison Square Garden and Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, changed gears as their list of players entering health and safety protocols grew. The virus, yet again, vividly exposed the tensions that permeate the relationships between economics and public health.
Except best laid plans, and all that – before anyone could welcome Irving back, he, too, went onto that expanding list.
Maybe COVID-19, then, should be named Athlete of the Year, as it has dominated headlines, sports or otherwise, since it first reared its ugly head in March of 2020, a daunting opponent that no one has felled. Nothing else has influenced sport the way this novel coronavirus has, from the staging of Tokyo 2020 in 2021 to the recent reshuffling of schedules from the NFL to the NBA to the NHL, which has just decided that its players will not head to Beijing in February for the Olympics.
COVID-19 gave some leagues a chance to shine, such as the WNBA, which last June became the first to achieve that rarefied 99% vaccination mark. Like most everyone else, the league didn’t issue a vaccine mandate, but rather let its players association throw itself into an extensive education campaign with the teams. Once again, the WNBA showed us all how to get something done.
Soccer players, too, got something done, coming together to accuse former Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley of sexual misconduct. Behind those who stood up and spoke out was none other than Alex Morgan, who brought receipts for what Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim claimed, demonstrating just how long the NWSL had, in her word, “tolerated” the behavior of Riley, with documentation that dated as far back as 2015. Within a matter of days, Riley was gone and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird was out.
These soccer players, of course, were not alone in demanding action and accountability in 2021. Gymnastics stars Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols, and McKayla Maroney represented the hundreds hurt and damaged by Larry Nassar when they testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee with devastating detail about the inaction of the FBI, and how it contributed to Nassar’s ability to sexually abuse so many young athletes, as well as anyone’s attempt to heal.
We will never know what kind of impact the Nassar years had on Biles, who was the only athlete from that era to compete in Tokyo. She landed in Japan with a Yurchenko double pike in her pocket and her eyes set on a historic gold medal haul, but withdrew from the majority of her events because of a case of what gymnasts call “the twisties” – the inability to find the floor when up in the air.
It was courage personified to see the one and only, the GOAT, an athlete so confident in her unprecedented skills that she wore a leotard with the head of an actual goat outlined in rhinestones, look at her trainer and announce in the early stages of the team competition that she could not continue.
While Biles eventually returned to competition to grab a bronze medal in the beam final, her decision to sit out most of her events paved the way for new stars to emerge, especially Suni Lee, who won the all-around gold with her high-flying uneven bars routine and a personal story that brought a tear to everyone’s eyes.
The gymnasts weren’t the only American women in Tokyo to shine. From basketball to volleyball, track cycling to golf, Allyson Felix to Katie Ledecky, Tokyo gave us a lot to celebrate as Title IX hits its 50th anniversary next year. And how many times have we watched the video of swimmer Lydia Jacoby’s friends and family in Seward, Alaska lose their collective minds when she took gold in the 100-meter breaststroke?
Women continued to snare sport headlines when two unseeded teens, Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, squared off at the U.S. open, with Raducanu becoming the first qualifier to not only get to a Grand Slam final, but win one.
Now, in the wake of Omicron, with sports upending their schedules with postponements and fear driving fans back home, we can only hope that these kinds of moments won’t be reserved to our rear-view mirrors, but are also ahead of us. Last summer, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach promised us that the Olympic Games were “a light at the end of this dark tunnel.” With Omicron continuing to create head-scratching numbers, I hope that light remains into the new year.
But I wonder.
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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