The sports figures I'm thankful for in 2020

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

This has been a damn year. Unforgettable, mostly in all the wrong ways.

We’ve lost icons. Endured a tough election cycle. Seen sports put on pause for moths. All while a pandemic has claimed 1.4 million lives, including 250,000 in the United States.

In spite of it all, this is a time of reflection for many of us, and in spite of myself, I find myself writing this column, things, mostly sports-related, that I’m thankful for this year.

Oh yeah. We’re walking this well-worn path. It’s a slow week, so just read and enjoy.

Here we go in (largely) no particular order.

Maya Moore

The WNBA star hit pause on her career at the height of her talents to help free Jonathan Irons, a man she met a decade earlier through family. Irons spent 22 years in prison — roughly half of the 50-year sentence he’d received at 16-years-old after being wrongfully convinced of burglary and assault by an all-white jury despite there being not a shred of evidence that tied him to the crime. Thanks to Moore’s help, Irons’ conviction was overturned in March and he was set free. And it gets even better: in September, the two revealed they’ve married.

Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe

Individually they’re amazing, but together they’re one of the greatest couples in sports. Bird won her fourth WNBA title with the Seattle Storm last month, and while in the Wubble she led the can’t-get-rid-of-her, let’s-help-her-lose movement to boost Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is now in a runoff against Republican Senator and Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler. Rapinoe proposed to Bird in late October, and there may or may not have been happy squeals at this laptop when we saw that news.

Mondo Duplantis

Track and field is typically not a sport where records are broken by athletes not yet old enough to legally drink. But on Sept. 17, a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday, Duplantis became the undisputed all-time king of the pole vault, clearing 6.15 meters (20 feet, 2.1 inches) at a meet in Rome; during the indoor track season he’d cleared 6.18m (20 feet, 3.3 inches). Both are new world records for the Louisiana-born son of Cajun-Swedish parents.

Skyler Badillo and the women of Washington Football Team offices

Sports hasn’t quite had the #MeToo wave other industries have, but Badillo, who told The Athletic of the repeated sexual harassment she endured while interning with MLS’ New York City FC as a medical trainer, and the scores of former Washington employees who have stepped forward to reveal the rotten culture within the organization’s business offices, deserve our kudos for sharing their stories and trying to make things better for women in the workplace.

Kim Ng

The one who finally made it to the top.

George Hill

By all accounts, it was Hill, the Milwaukee Bucks point guard, who was first to say he wouldn’t be playing on Aug. 26. Hill saw yet another Black man, this time Jacob Blake, shot by police officers in an incident in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about an hour south of Milwaukee. After protests began, teenager Kyle Rittenhouse came to Kenosha from out of state, allegedly shot three people, killing two, and was able to return all the way to his home before he was arrested. Hill had had enough, and desperate to do something, told coaches he wouldn’t play that night’s playoff game. His teammates followed, setting off a historic walkout.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

LeBron James and “More Than A Vote”

In June, James partnered with Michigan’s Secretary of State to start More Than A Vote, and the organization focused on getting out the vote efforts across the country. Sports arenas became massive polling places to both cut down on wait times and keep everyone as socially distanced as possible, James recruited other high-profile athletes to spread the word to register and vote, and MTAV recruited over 10,000 people across the country to serve as poll workers.

The WNBA

The standard-bearers for athlete activism began the year negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that raised wages, improved travel, and even provides a daycare stipend. Inside their Wubble, they dedicated their abbreviated season to Breonna Taylor, the woman slain in her own home by Louisville police, kept pushing for civil rights, and helped turn Warnock from a face in a crowd to front-runner.

Cam Newton’s wardrobe

Moving from Charlotte to Boston and the Panthers to the Patriots has meant a lot of changes for Newton, but thankfully his wardrobe choices remain as glorious as ever. Look, you might not want to wear the things he does, but not everyone can pull off a fashion translation of “fall in New England” like this.

Bubba Wallace and Lewis Hamilton

Being the only Black faces in a white sport is not easy. This year, however, neither shied away from using his voice when it came to matters of race and the continued mistreatment of those that look like them. Hamilton ended his season with his seventh Formula 1 world championship, and Wallace announced he’ll be driving for a new garage: 23XI, co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.

Dany Garcia

Just a boss. And now she and her ex, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, are set on reviving the XFL.

Devin and Jason McCourty

A lot of NFL players do incredible things off the field. The McCourtys, both with the New England Patriots, don’t just do the usual, like lend their names to charitable events or raise money for sickle cell, which afflicts a favorite aunt. The Players Coalition members effectively adopted a Boston high school this fall, Greater Egelston, to make sure all students had internet access for remote learning, and much-needed items like clothing and hygiene items for those who needed them. That’s in addition to backing an education inequality bill in Massachusetts in 2019 aimed at making sure poorer communities got an increase in funding.

Naomi Osaka

Champion and activist.

“Everyone has a platform and how they use it is their responsibility,” she tweeted recently. An icon in the making.

We’re a ham on Thanksgiving household, but whatever you place on your table, enjoy y’all.

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