2020 was a transformative year in sports, and we need more of those heroics in 2021

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5-min read

There may not be a more anticipated New Year’s Day in recorded history than New Year’s Day 2021.

For so many of us, officially moving on from 2020 will be cathartic, allowing us to put this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year in the rearview mirror. No, January 1 won’t be a cure-all by any means. But a new year has long signified new beginnings and a sense of hopefulness, and we need that in spades.

It wasn’t all bad over these 365 days; there were some positive developments and things we’d like to see carry over to 2021. In truth, some of these things were borne of awful moments, notably the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, but history is filled with those who picked up the microphone to push for change after experiencing some of their lowest moments.

Women in coaching, scouting and front office positions of men’s pro sports

Early in 2020 we saw an amazing first: the first woman and openly gay NFL coach — San Francisco’s Katie Sowers — on the sidelines in the Super Bowl. Sowers and the 49ers, who also have a Black woman, Salli Clavelle, in their pro personnel office, fell short of winning the game, but we’ve continued to see women earn jobs with teams.

The highlight, of course, came in November when the Miami Marlins named Kim Ng as their general manager, the highly respected woman who has spent decades in the game at long last getting her chance and giving new hope to girls and women who have dreamed of becoming a GM.

The Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as their general manager earlier this year. (Photo by Marcelo Maragni/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
The Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as their general manager earlier this year. (Photo by Marcelo Maragni/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

More athletes normalizing mental illness

It’s a topic that has been stigmatized for so long, but we’re seeing that dissipate thanks in part to athletes who are being open with their own stories.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott admitted to depression and anxiety in the early days of the COVID shutdown, feelings that came back after the death of his older brother by suicide about a month later. Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst opened up about a previous suicide attempt. Dallas Wings center Imani McGee-Stafford wrote about growing up in an abusive household and the depression she’s battled for much of her life.

For too long we’ve been sold this myth that a certain level of success, whether athletically or financially, means one has no problems, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

More teams showing solidarity

Don’t just say you’re family because you share a locker room — show it.

In September, the United Soccer League’s San Diego Loyal, a second-tier team co-owned and coached by U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan, walked off the field at the start of the second half of a game they needed to win to stay in the playoffs after an opposing player used a homophobic slur toward a Loyal player. Days earlier, a Loyal player endured a racial slur from an opponent, and the Loyal asked to forfeit the result because it didn’t want to recognize that it had been part of the game.

Athletes using their influence for the greater good

The entire Boston Celtics roster wrote an op-ed directed at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, calling him out for wanting to eliminate a clause in a proposed police reform bill that would regulate use of facial recognition technology, which has been shown to be flawed and biased. LeBron James founded “More Than A Vote,” which encourages voter registration, signs up poll workers and contributes money to support those efforts.

The Atlanta Dream’s Renee Montgomery gave up her season to do voting rights and racial justice work. Bubba Wallace, the NASCAR Cup Series’ only Black driver, successfully pushed for NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from being flown at tracks.

These were just some of the many examples of athletes using their significant platforms and joining the fight for a level playing field for all.

Atlanta's Renee Montgomery opted out of the WNBA season to focus on racial and social justice. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Atlanta's Renee Montgomery opted out of the WNBA season to focus on racial and social justice. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

WNBA respect

No, you couldn’t beat them one-on-one on the court. And few can beat these women when it comes to activism and action. It’s been hard enough battling for their own recognition, yet they’ve been fighting for all of us for years. They deserve their flowers.

White coaches stepping up in support of Black players

Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have been doing it for years, but more recently we’ve seen Sean Payton and Frank Reich unapologetically speak up for Black lives, with Reich kneeling during the anthem in the Indianapolis Colts’ season opener as his players stood on either side of him.

These coaches depend on the success of rosters predominantly comprised of Black athletes for their livelihood, so on a basic level it makes sense to show support for their literal humanity, but the fact that they’re outliers says a lot.

Women bravely stepping forward

Sports hasn’t truly had its “me too” moment. The NFL’s inexplicable near-silence on the series of Washington Post stories exposing a culture of misogyny and harassment for female employees and cheerleaders at the Washington Football Team ensured it wouldn’t happen in 2020.

Perhaps the solidarity and bravery of those women, as well as former NYCFC sports medicine intern Skyler Badillo and women at LSU who have shed light on the school turning a blind eye to accusations of sexual assault and partner violence by members of the football team, will at long last lead to sports having a reckoning with how it has long allowed gross mistreatment of women.

Naomi Osaka

More of her candor, more of her sometimes cheeky Instagram posts, more of her sweet face and flawless skin gracing magazine covers, more of her proudly taking up space as a Black woman and advocating for those who look like her, more of her winning.

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