For many sports fans, next week’s calendar flip marks a merciful end to a brutal year.
Starting on January 1, with former NBA commissioner David Stern’s death from a brain hemorrhage, 2020 became defined by waves of losses rather than any one triumph.
In any other year, the tragic helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others on January 26th would have been its most memorable event — a moment sports fans would recall by where they were when they heard the news.
Instead, 2020 became one of the most crowded timespans in sports history: Athletes protested racism on the field and in the streets; teams opened up their stadiums to voters during a presidential election; and leagues worked to stem a worldwide pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 300,000 Americans.
While most fans and reporters were pushed out of the arenas by social distancing concerns, many photographers were not, and subsequently provided one of the few first-hand accounts of an unforgettable year.
Fans gather around a mural of late NBA great Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant during a public memorial for them and seven others killed in a helicopter crash, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles
Smoke from wildfires obscures the sky over Oracle Park in San Francisco as the Seattle Mariners take batting practice before their baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on September 9
Clyde Edwards-Helaire of LSU prepares to run the 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 28
Tiger Woods, right, and his son Charlie wait to putt on the first green during the first round of the PNC Championship golf tournament, Saturday, December 19
There was more than enough pain to go around in 2020.
Mourners poured into the streets in January to say goodbye to Bryant and Gianna, whose memories were honored with countless murals and shrines around the world. Meanwhile, privately, friends and family grieved for the other seven Calabasas helicopter crash victims: Payton Chester, 13; Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
Grief turned to fear in March when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, prompting the NBA to go on an immediate hiatus, followed by every other major sports league. Two days earlier, the 7-foot-2 center had playfully touched reporters’ microphones and recorders during a press conference, flippantly disregarding the growing panic among health officials.
Within a week, Gobert apologized for his ‘careless’ behavior and he donated $500,000 to employee-related COVID-19 relief efforts, accord to multiple reports.
Since that time, the public has grown accustomed to such pandemic-related issues.
Major League Baseball and the NFL frantically struggled to rework schedules as one team after another fell victim to coronavirus outbreaks, not to mention the forest fires that affected baseball games on the West Coast over the summer.
Then, after the Dodgers won the World Series in October, infected third baseman Jeff Turner caused panic among MLB and local health officials by returning to the field to celebrate with his Los Angeles teammates.
The site of a Calabasas helicopter crash that claimed the lives of former NBA great Kobe Bryant his daughter Gianna Bryant, 13; Payton Chester, 13; Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50
Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa Bryant speaks during the ‘Celebration of Life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant’ service at Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles on February 24
LeBron James, wearing a No. 24 jersey, speaks about Kobe Bryant prior to a game between the Lakers and the Trail Blazers
The seven seven Calabasas helicopter crash victims included Payton Chester (top center), 13; Sarah Chester, 45 (bottom, center); Alyssa Altobelli (bottom right), 14; Keri Altobelli (top right), 46; John Altobelli (top right), 56; Christina Mauser (lower left), 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan (top left), 50
March Madness, America’s favorite workplace distraction, was one of hundreds of NCAA events cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. College football teams debated even playing at all this year, only to have 13 percent of scheduled games canceled. Meanwhile the summer Olympics, horse racing’s triple crown, and most golf and tennis majors were postponed as death tolls soared across the country.
The NBA, WNBA, and NHL opted to complete their seasons inside virus-resistant ‘bubbles,’ successfully keeping the pandemic at bay so players could compete for championships in near-empty arenas.
But before that could happen, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man was killed during a violent arrest in Minneapolis on May 25 when officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for at least eight minutes and 15 seconds. The police body cam footage, showing Floyd begging for his life, sparked outrage and protests, with many current and former athletes lending their voices to the demands for justice.
‘I honestly want the death penalty for the cop because he casually, hand in his pocket, killed my brother,’ former NBA player Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s from the Houston area, told DailyMail.com in May. ‘No effort. He put no effort into killing him. Kneeled on his neck, had him cuffed, and just suffocated him.’
In response, the simmering tensions between players and owners over racism in America gave way to a new conversation between the unions and leagues.
Whereas once the NFL had discouraged players from following Colin Kaepernick’s example by kneeling during the national anthem, league commissioner Roger Goodell publicly acknowledged that he had been wrong about athlete protests. He even urged clubs to add football’s most notorious free agent, although no team has yet signed the 33-year-old quarterback.
German epee fencer Alexandra Ndolo trains with a self made puppet in her apartment on April 09, 2020 in Cologne, Germany. Ndolo normally trains with a coach and team mates, but due to the lockdown she, like many professional athletes, is having to improvising training sessions to stay fit
New Zealand Football Ferns player Annalie Longo trains in isolation in her garage on April 8 in Christchurch, New Zealand
Cincinnati Reds mascot Mr. Redlegs watches the game from the stands in the seventh inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Great American Ball Park on September 21
Not taking any chances, Mr. Met continued to wear a face mask despite the fact that fans were banned from Citi Field in 2020
Singer Richie Jen Hsien-chi poses with Cardboard cutouts of fans prior the CPBL season opening game between Rakuten Monkeys and CTBC Brothers at Taoyuan International Baseball Stadium on April 11, 2020 in Taoyuan, Taiwan
Authentic #18, ridden by jockey John Velazquez leads the field around the first turn during the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on September 05, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. The 146th running of the Kentucky Derby was held without fans due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
The NBA’s about-face was more dramatic.
The league that had once required its players to stand for the anthem met with union representatives following Floyd’s death and devised a plan to emblazon ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the bubble courts at Disney World. Players had social justice messages stitched onto their uniforms, and every game from late July until the Finals in early October began with the vast majority of players, coaches, and even officials kneeling in protest of racism.
Play was stopped a second time in August when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The NBA season resumed a few days later, but the controversy over police violence against African Americans remained a theme until the season ended with the Lakers winning their 17th league title in October.
The ‘Teammates’ statues of former Boston Red Sox players Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio wear makeshift masks made of Red Sox merchandise as the Major League Baseball season is postponed due the coronavirus pandemic on April 9
WNBA players were perhaps more vocal, and publicly quarreled with Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler during her senatorial campaign in Georgia. Team members even rallied in support of her opponent, Raphael Warnock, as Loeffler criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and condemned WNBA players for speaking out on social justice.
And basketball players weren’t alone in their outrage.
The NHL had its first anthem protests, tennis sensation Naomi Osaka wore the names of police violence victims on her face masks, and NASCAR permanently banned the Confederate flag.
Bubba Wallace, the African-American driver who pushed for that ban, took criticism from fans, some of whom paraded the rebel symbol outside events and others who flew one over a NASCAR race in June.
Soon after, drivers rushed to Wallace’s support when an apparent noose was found tied to his garage stall at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
The following day, Wallace had his No. 43 car pushed to the front of the starting grid by the rest of the field in an emotional scene that served as one of the best photo ops of 2020.
The noose – which was not discovered by Wallace, but rather one of his crew members – was later determined by the FBI to be an innocent garage door rope pull that had been in use for at least a year. (NASCAR later released a picture of the rope, which was partially coiled like a noose. According to the stock car circuit, that particular rope was the only one tied in such a manner in any NASCAR garage)
Wallace, who was admittedly relieved not to have been the target of a hate crime, still thanked his fellow drivers for their support. And coming amid controversy over the Confederate flag ban, and in the aftermath of driver Kyle Larson’s suspension for using a racial slur, the 26-year-old Wallace had a positive take on the incident.
‘Make no mistake, though some will try, this should not detract from the show of unity we had on Monday, and the progress we’ve made as a sport to be a more welcoming environment for all,’ he said.
Most leagues saw television audiences dwindle throughout 2020 — something many blamed on activist athletes, although that fails to explain why PGA and horse racing Nielsen ratings plummeted in the absence of any protests. The highly political WNBA, meanwhile, enjoyed a 68 percent ratings jump thanks to 87 national televised games in 2020.
In this handout image provided by Mizzou Athletics, Sarah Fuller No. 32 of the Vanderbilt Commodores kicks off in the second half against the Mizzou Tigers at Memorial Stadium on November 28, 2020 in Columbia, Missouri. Fuller, a senior goalkeeper on Vanderbilt’s SEC championship soccer team became the first woman to play in a Power 5 NCAA football game
Maya Gabeira provided one top pic by surfing the tallest wave of the year at 73.5 feet – a women’s record
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins catches the game-winning touchdown as Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, center, free safety Jordan Poyer, right, and strong safety Micah Hyde, left, defend on November 15
NASCAR drivers rushed to Wallace’s support when an apparent noose was found tied to his garage stall at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. The following day, Wallace had his No. 43 car pushed to the front of the starting grid by the rest of the field in an emotional scene that served as one of the best photo ops of 2020. The noose – which was not discovered by Wallace, but rather one of his crew members – was later determined by the FBI to be an innocent garage door rope pull that had been in use for at least a year. (NASCAR later released a picture of the rope, which was partially coiled like a noose. According to the stock car circuit, that particular rope was the only one tied in such a manner in any NASCAR garage) Wallace, who was admittedly relieved not to have been the target of a hate crime, still thanked his fellow drivers for their support. And coming amid controversy over the Confederate flag ban, and in the aftermath of driver Kyle Larson’s suspension for using a racial slur, the 26-year-old Wallace had a positive take on the incident. ‘Make no mistake, though some will try, this should not detract from the show of unity we had on Monday, and the progress we’ve made as a sport to be a more welcoming environment for all,’ he said
Mookie Betts #50 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates as he rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Tampa Bay Rays during the eighth inning in Game Six of the 2020 MLB World Series at Globe Life Field on October 27
Last month, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as general manager, making her the first woman to hold that title in any of North America’s four major men’s professional leagues. She’s also now the first Asian-American general manager in MLB history
NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo shoots a wild floater over Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner during a game in March
Other losses were more tangible.
MLB, perhaps more than any other sport, lost many of its most cherished stars in 2020, including Johnny Antonelli, Tony Fernandez, Whitey Ford, Al Kaline, Don Larsen, Joe Morgan, Dick Allen, Tom Seaver, and former Cardinals teammates Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.
NFL legends Don Shula, Gale Sayers, Kevin Greene, Sam Wyche, Chris Doleman, Bobby Mitchell, Tom Dempsey, and former Packers teammates Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Paul Hornung all passed away.
The college basketball world lost several coaching giants, like John Thompson and Lute Olsen, while NBA legends like former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan as well as Wes Unseld and Tommy Heinsohn also passed away.
David Ayers, a 42-year-old zamboni driver and emergency goaltender, was forced into duty for the Carolina Hurricanes during an NHL game in February and ended up getting a win
Diego Maradona’s recent death made international news, while the passing of Montreal Canadiens legend Henri Richard was mourned across his native Canada.
The sports news wasn’t all bad in 2020.
Leagues like the NFL and NBA opened up their arenas to help facilitate the presidential election; Washington quarterback Alex Smith returned from a two-year absence and 17 leg surgeries to play in an NFL game; and 42-year-old zamboni driver and emergency goaltender David Ayres was forced into duty for the Carolina Hurricanes during an NHL game.
The Kansas City Chiefs won their first Super Bowl in 50 years back in February, the Tampa Bay Lighting captured their second Stanley Cup, and Louisiana State beat Clemson in the college football championship 11 months ago.
Female athletes made several important break throughs in 2020.
In February, Maya Gabeira surfed the tallest wave of the year at 73.5 feet, which marked a women’s record. Then last month in college football, Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play in a Power 5 conference game, and later kicked a pair of extra points in her farewell performance.
Perhaps most importantly, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as general manager, making her the first woman to hold that title in any of North America’s four major men’s professional leagues. She’s also now the first Asian-American general manager in MLB history.
Such a moment may not be the first thing that fans remember when they think about 2020, but following a grueling year, it may be the best sign of hope moving forward.
‘With 30 years’ experience as a baseball executive, she’s made history as the first woman and first Asian-American to hold the top post in a baseball operations department,’ tweeted tennis legend and civil rights leader Billie Jean King. ‘Progress!’
Lance Stroll of Canada driving the (18) Racing Point RP20 Mercedes is launched upside down following a crash during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on November 29, 2020 in Bahrain
In a photo provided by Triller, Jake Paul stands next to former NBA player Nate Robinson, who lies on the mat after being knocked out during the second round of an exhibition boxing bout on November 28 in Los Angeles
Clemson wide receiver E.J. Williams (6) hauls in a pass with one hand in front of Notre Dame cornerback Clarence Lewis (26) for a gain of 22-yards during the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Saturday