It was the evening of March 11, 2020, a day that will forever live in the annals of American cultural history. As the coronavirus pandemic washed upon our shores, a skeptical nation, including our president, was paralyzed by indecision and uncertainty.
But something happened that night that snapped the nation to attention. It came as a lightning bolt, lighting up our phones and television screens:
The NBA was suspending its season.
Who doesn’t remember where they were at the moment the alert came, announcing that one player’s positive COVID-19 test was shutting down the entire season, immediately?
A sports league was doing what President Donald Trump and 535 members of Congress could not do. It was awakening a nation to the overwhelming magnitude of a crisis that was going to shape every moment of our lives for the rest of the year.
The NBA successfully completed its season in a bubble this summer, and its players and coaches were also among those in the world of sports who spoke out about racial injustice. (Photo: Ashley Landis, USA TODAY Sports)
“We were bumbling along as a country until the NBA did that,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, “and then suddenly everybody took notice of how many lives would have been saved had we shut down a month earlier.”
If the NBA, one of the world’s most popular and successful sports enterprises, could shut down in the blink of an eye, just how serious was this? We soon found out. Over the next few days, as college and professional games disappeared before our eyes, sports stopped being an escape from reality and instead became a sobering mirror of our society.
As sports went, so went the nation. When the country needed guidance and something to lean on, the sports world became our North Star. How interesting, and fitting, that the year that sports became more important than ever was the sports year with the most interruptions. At a time of great uncertainty, the sports world had all the answers – most of them right, a few of them wrong.
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The bubbles that protected NBA and WNBA players were majestic successes, feats of personal responsibility and professional leadership. But just as some members of the American public grew antsy, or barely cared about health guidelines and the safety of those around them, so too at times did sports, college sports in particular.
When one college conference after another decided to play football, riding the backs of 18-to-22-year-olds in the midst of so much medical uncertainty to make millions in TV money, sports played a leadership role in all the wrong ways during the worst days of the pandemic in November and December. In college towns across America, many students were not allowed on campuses, but football players were. The powers that be decided in their own self-centered way that we needed young, unpaid men to entertain us by playing football during a pandemic, no matter what. It remains to be seen how history will judge that decision.
But there was so much more to 2020. Barely two months after the original March shutdowns, a wave of athlete activism the likes of which we had never seen was triggered by the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police, originating with the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.
Unprecedented social consciousness followed, led by the NBA and WNBA, as well as others such as tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose masks at the U.S. Open bore the names of Black victims of racial injustice and police brutality. “Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry for a new generation of athletes, hundreds of them. Often their sponsors followed right along. This wave of activism and protest culminated in the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to boycott a playoff game on August 26, leading to a shutdown not only of the NBA playoffs but also games in the WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.
“When the Bucks didn’t come out that day during the playoffs,” Lapchick said, “there hadn’t been a day as important for athlete activism since the protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics. What was important was that this time, they were not alone, everybody was joining them. It wasn’t a single voice, it was a unified voice.”
Tennis legend and women’s rights advocate Billie Jean King has been a leading voice for social change through sports for more than 50 years.
“Many of today’s professional athletes found their voices in 2020,” she said. “The pandemic brought us more time to reflect and more time to look closely at something bigger than themselves. And we took action. We saw that with the NBA, the WNBA and others taking a lead on equality issues. Individual athletes like Naomi Osaka made us see important situations in a new light.
“For my generation, standing up and speaking out was often frowned upon and discouraged and many of us saw it as the price we had to pay for positive change. Professional athletes have an amazing platform for change and it is gratifying to see so many of them – and the leagues they compete in – step up for something bigger than sports.”
Such an apt description of 2020, a sports year that was about so much more than sports.
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