The year 2020 started off terribly, including the horrific case of a civilian passenger plane being “unintentionally” shot down by the Iranian military on Jan. 8, killing 176 passengers and crew.
That tragedy was closely followed by the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26. Bryant’s death led to harrowing yet impactful discussions on Black masculinity, fatherhood, and accountability.
On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was jogging in Glynn County, Ga., when he was followed by armed white residents and fatally shot. It was not that discussions on racism in America began in the aftermath of the Arbery shooting, it is that they were being forced into the open. It was a time of uncertainty with a possibly deadly pandemic looming, but cries against the injustice surrounding Arbery’s death would soon reverberate.
We weren’t even three months into the year when COVID-19 hit us hard. Cities and countries began to lock down while sports leagues watched and waited.
In March, police in Louisville, Ky., broke down the door of an innocent first responder who was home with her boyfriend and recklessly shot her in what was a case of “miscommunication.” Breonna Taylor died of her gunshot wounds, and the white policemen who shot her were never indicted. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) would later dedicate the 2020 season to her memory.
The mounting fear of a virus that was sweeping the globe took over. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the NBA and men’s and women’s professional soccer leagues all over the world came to a halt. The NCAA cancelled its men’s and women’s March Madness basketball tournaments and the Masters golf tournament was postponed until November.
Truthfully, I can’t remember much of late March other than waiting for emails from my children’s schools or updates from Dr. Theresa Tam and watching Justin Trudeau’s or Doug Ford’s press conferences. I know we rolled into the spring and businesses were shutting down and morale was low. Kids’ sports leagues were indefinitely postponed, and teenagers prayed proms would not be cancelled while frontline healthcare workers pushed themselves to the limits amidst exhaustion and boundless courage.
Somewhere in that blur I do remember the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) announcing it would not be sending athletes to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which had not yet been postponed, due to public and athlete health concerns.
I interviewed WNBA player and TSN analyst Kia Nurse shortly after that announcement for the Burn It All Down podcast and Nurse said: “We’re already in such a time of uncertainty, right? So to be adding extra levels of stress, unnecessary, but obviously with the COC and the decision that was made there, that was a really bold move and a huge step of leadership on the world stage from Canada. I think they took an athlete-centred view, and that’s something you want as an athlete and that’s a type of organization you want to play for.”
I wondered if the COC’s decision might be the beginning of solid leadership in sports. Would commissioners and other sports leaders be transparent and honest about the pandemic and also about the crisis and struggles of Black communities?
By April, who am I kidding? I can’t recall April at all. My children were at home and I was pretending like I could support them with high school levels of math and science. My daughter was grieving her senior year of high school and, much like the rest of Canada, I wondered whether CERB would be enough.
As the weather warmed and people began to adjust to this pandemic way of life, there were still no sports. On May 27, the National Women’s Soccer League announced it would be holding The Challenge Cup from June 27 to July 26 in Utah. The players would bubble and there would be no spectators and severely limited media.
It was something that sports fans could look forward to. But that happy news was eclipsed by yet another death of an innocent Black man, making it difficult to feel excited about anything.
On May 25, George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis after allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was firmly planted onto Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as he lay on the ground. Images and video of this horror flashed around the world.
Those who had previously dismissed protests against racism in sports as being “political” could no longer pretend the issue didn’t affect athletes, coaches and fans. Amidst the pandemic, there was suffering of a different kind.
Needless to say, it was virtually impossible to think of a way to segue into sports when sadness, grief and anger were sweeping through communities all over the United States and reverberating in Canada and Europe.
By June, athletes were participating in protest marches and social media campaigns. Black communities were being exhausted by the work required to plead with society to understand they deserve to live in safety and with justice. It was no different in Canada. We know racism does not stop existing north of the border.
National Women’s Soccer League players kneeled before matches. Kneeling is a sincere gesture sometimes associated with prayer, which made it an important contrast to standing for an anthem. Bubba Wallace and NASCAR saw unprecedented change in banning the Confederate flag from the racing series’ events.
Once a “stick to sports” industry, sports media was also beginning to realize that sports are a political sector. Some media organizations also realized they may not be equipped or have the knowledge to tackle some situations, and that would require more work on their parts. Meanwhile, board rooms and league executives were working hard to plan a way for sports to pick up again.
July saw progress that included the Washington Football Team changing its name from an anti-Indigenous slur despite owner Dan Snyder long ignoring calls from Native American communities, insisting it would “never” happen. Arguably this shift came not from mounting public pressure but from threats of corporate sponsors who were, in fact, reading the room and refused to be associated with something so blatantly offensive.
Days later, Edmonton’s CFL team also committed to changing its name from the Eskimos to the EE Football Team after the insurance company Belairdirect threatened to withdraw its sponsorship. Cleveland’s MLB team followed suit a few months later. I hope that these changes are attributed to the Indigenous activists and communities that fought hard.
July was also when the NBA and WNBA announced they would be bubbling and competing in isolated pockets in the Disney World compound in Florida. The NHL was going to bubble but in Toronto and Edmonton. MLB began a 60-game season, with COVID-19 border restrictions forcing the Blue Jays to play their home games out of Buffalo.
Sports do bring joy and the returning games were a much-welcome distraction, but 2020 made it abundantly clear that systemic injustices will not be resolved with tournaments in bubbles.
Floyd’s death had arguably been a catalyst for increased action and athlete activism. While Black women created a blueprint leading the way, Black and racialized athletes mobilized in addition to educating those around them.
It would push others to speak out. Hockey players like Braden Holtby and Tyler Seguin came forward to share their learnings. Kendall Coyne Schofield and Robin Lehner, who had previously been public about opposing Colin Kaepernick and supporting Donald Trump, respectively, came forward and admitted they were listening and unlearning.
But as racialized athletes continue to carry the load of change, have we seen sustainable and actionable change? Is the commitment to continue the movement still there as the calendar flips to 2021?
Sports organizations, media outlets and networks have leapt to increase diversity numbers and increase hiring of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) staff. There are leagues and teams that remain committed to fighting for justice and using their platform to do better. We see lights of goodness from grassroots organizations like Black Girl Hockey Club at the forefront of intersections of race and sport, putting in the effort and encouraging involvement.
Yet there are disingenuous factions in sport, those who remain unabashedly arrogant and those that have rightly drawn criticism.
The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), co-founded by Evander Kane and Akim Aliu with a mission to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey,” cut ties with the NHL in October after the HDA said it had no faith that the league was committed to having the “important conversations about race needed in the game.”
While we rally for racial justice, and inclusion for racialized, queer and disabled communities in all levels and corners of sport, we remain in a pandemic. There are those resisting action, and those who are too tepid to get in the play. How do we assuage their fears and keep ourselves committed without burning out?
Fighting for equality does not simply mean posting photos and messages on social media; it means committing publicly and privately to difficult discussions. It means understanding that you will never fully know what it means to be discriminated against (and, no, reverse racism or reverse sexism are not actual things).
It means demanding that sports organizations not be performative, and that leaders be held to account for their decisions. Moving towards an equitable and better world means being transparent and answering when things get difficult. It means acknowledging that unlearning will be uncomfortable, and that this process will take a lifetime.
Carefully untangling systems of oppression as we go forward seems more complex than a Cirque du Soleil performance. But we will have to contort ourselves and be more dynamic and flexible with our strategies and implementation. We also have to care for each other’s health and well-being.
And we must hold the joy when it occurs. We need to pause to take deep breaths, while knowing there are others who are not permitted to breathe.
Athletes like Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford would also use this momentum to advocate for child poverty and food sustainability in the United Kingdom. This isn’t just about combating racism. It is about knowing that all forms of injustice: racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, classism and xenophobia are deeply connected.
The World Junior Hockey tournament and the NBA season are under way, and despite the cancellation of the Women’s Worlds and numerous other tournaments, what are we saying? Are our voices ringing with concern just being flung into a dark abyss?
The National Women's Hockey League recently announced a partnership with NBC Sports and, for the first time, women’s professional hockey will be aired on the network. I balance my excitement with concern at the timing and the health risks to those involved.
I will pray and hope for the good health of those players, coaches, team staff, arena staff and my media colleagues. I can’t help but feel a heart-wrenching sadness as the numbers of collegiate athletes with confirmed COVID-19 cases soar.
Are sports worth it? Sports are only worth it if we use them for good. Not if sports uses Black and Brown and/or young and vulnerable bodies for lining the pockets of rich white men. And not if we play the games but forget the names of the innocent people who lost their lives this year.
We are nearing the end of what might have been the most challenging year in recent memory. Sports is a vehicle for empowerment and change in society.
We don’t have answers, but we have hope and we have ideas. Consistently implementing these ideas, individually and collectively, must be part of our path forward. Carrying a load, and fiercely examining our own privilege — be it race, gender, ability, educational or economic — and using it in order to help instill real change is what we need to do.
We can’t be on the bench in 2021.