20 for 2020: Sports figures who defined courageous and kind, selfish and stubborn

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.

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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:

Rudy Gobert

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.

While competing at the U.S. Open this year, Naomi Osaka wore seven different masks, each with the name of a Black victim of police brutality. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY S)

Naomi Osaka

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.

Joe Burrow

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.

Novak Djokovic

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.

Dabo Swinney may have led Clemson to the College Football Playoff, but the coach was criticized this year for many of his comments regarding playing through a pandemic. (Photo: Josh Morgan, USA TODAY Sports)

Dabo Swinney

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.”

Dabo, optimistic as ever: pic.twitter.com/vP4FhICpk0

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.

Casey Short

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.”

George Hill

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.

Michael Jordan

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.”

Chuba Hubbard

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.

Ron Rivera

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, the second 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.

Bubba Wallace

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.”

Justin Turner

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.

Kevin Warren

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 disingenuousridicule.

As for Warren? He must curse Delany’s good fortune, knowing the exact time to hand over the gavel.

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