The 10 Most Important Sports Figures of 2020

Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Sports have always attempted to live outside the normal rules of politics, economics, and social discord, their record books projecting a sense of normalcy and historical order. There are 162 games in a baseball season; there are 82 games in an NBA season; the NCAA Tournament happens every March. 2020 upset this balance. As with 1918, the World War II years, and the fall of 2001, the games that took place during this period will always include a mental asterisk.

Beyond the stats, though, this ended up being one of the most consequential sports years ever, largely as a result of the outside forces that so disrupted players and leagues around the world. While the sports world as a whole changed in many ways, this year, that change was driven by individuals, staking their athletic claims and making momentous choices that will reverberate into the future. To wrap up this exhausting, overwhelming, but still thrilling, sports year, here are the ten sports figures who loomed the largest in 2020.

Rudy Gobert. It all started with Rudy. Just a few days before the NBA season (and then the entire sports world) shut down — and after the NBA had instituted a rule mandating that reporters had to stay away from players because of early COVID-19 concerns — Gobert made a big show out of touching all the microphones on a press conference podium.

It is worth remembering that Gobert did that not just out of indifference to the virus, but also as a show of support for reporters, who were being treated like potential disease vectors before the entire world was considering everybody as such. Not that it mattered two days later, when the Jazz–Thunder game was canceled because Gobert (and, later, teammates) had tested positive, shutting down the entire NBA season. This was also just after President Trump’s sniffly, disturbing White House speech about the coronavirus, and Tom Hanks’s diagnosis. Gobert’s positive test, and the NBA shutdown, made everything feel that much closer to home. Gobert’s 2020 ended on a much more positive note; last week he signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension.

LeBron James. At an age when many NBA veterans are winding down their careers, LeBron is more relevant than ever. His organization More Than a Vote is already one of the largest and most powerful voting rights/anti-voter-suppression organizations in the country. He hosted (with Barack Obama) the national high-school graduation special back in May; he worked with Obama both on hiring poll workers and getting the NBA back on the court after a social-justice boycott in August; his I Promise elementary school in Akron continues to be one of the few public schools in the United States that’s still thriving during the pandemic; and, oh yeah, he won his fourth NBA Championship in October. Big year.

Brian Kemp. Okay, so hang with me here. What most people remember about the Georgia governor’s decision to open hair salons, bowling alleys, gyms, and other nonessential workplaces back in April was how recklessly early and rash the decision seemed. (It was so premature that even Trump didn’t get onboard.) But it was also the first crack of the door for sports returning. When gyms opened up in Atlanta, the NBA’s Hawks petitioned the NBA to allow them to open up their practice facility to its players, reasoning that if they were going to work out somewhere, they should do it in the controlled environment of the team’s building. The NBA let them, and when similar orders came down from governors in states like Florida and Colorado, the league was basically back open for business. The NBA bubble came soon after, as did the return of the rest of sports. For better or worse, it was Kemp’s order that got the ball rolling, so to speak.

Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs quarterback began the year by pulling off an incredible comeback in the Super Bowl to win Kansas City its first title in 50 years — perhaps avoiding a superspreader event in San Francisco in the process — and ended it by leading his team to the best record in the NFL and establishing himself as the league’s next Tom Brady. (Remember, we did all like Brady at first. It’s true, I swear.) In between, he was hugely influential in getting the league to put out a pro-Black Lives Matter video, with an NFL official saying, “Getting Mahomes to participate [in the video] was so big.”

Maya Moore. Former president Barack Obama once joked that the White House “needed a Maya Moore wing,” since her team’s championships made her a frequent visitor. Yet the former WNBA MVP and four-time WNBA champion has not played in a game since August 21, 2018. In the prime years of her career, she took an extended “sabbatical” while she fought for the release of Jonathan Irons, a man wrongly convicted of burglary and assault 22 years ago. In an incredible turn of events, Irons’s conviction was overturned in March, he was released from prison in July, and Moore married him in September. It is not known if she will return to the WNBA — she still has several years left in her prime — but if she did, she’d return to a league that has become even more politically active in her absence … in large part because of her.

Naomi Osaka. Osaka was the highest-earning woman athlete in 2020, but that almost felt irrelevant to her influence off the tennis court. Her key stretch came in August and September, when, in the middle of an 11-match winning streak, she announced that she would not play in the semifinal of a warm-up tourney for the U.S. Open, as part of the sports-wide protest in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake. (The tournament itself shut down as a result.) Then she went out and won the U.S. Open, in the process conspicuously outfitting herself with an array of Black Lives Matter masks. She’s only 23 years old.

Adam Silver. Silver wasn’t the only commissioner who muddled through 2020 — MLB’s Rob Manfred managed two months of active play without a positive COVID test — but Silver did orchestrate the undeniable triumph that was the NBA bubble. The bubble was so incredibly successful, with no positive tests at all and some of the best basketball many observers have ever seen in their lives, that it served as a daily rebuke to the administration’s fecklessness in the face of the coronavirus. Forget commissioner: Could Silver just be our president?

Breanna Stewart. No league was more politically active this year than the WNBA — let us not forget the Atlanta Dream all wearing “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in direct defiance of their team owner, Kelly Loeffler — and Stewart was right in the middle of things, pushing the league to have BLACK LIVES MATTER painted on the court and speaking about racial justice before the first game began. She also went out and dominated again, winning her second WNBA title (and her second WNBA Finals MVP award). As Megan Rapinoe put it, “She realizes she has an opportunity to be more than what she is on the court — and also, as a white player in a predominantly Black league, to be an ally, or accomplice. Not a lot of white athletes have done that in the past: said their cause is my cause, and I’m as willing to fight for it as they are.”

Bubba Wallace. Few athletes took more individual heat this year than Wallace, who, as the only major Black NASCAR driver in a sport that just banned the Confederate flag this year (largely because Wallace pushed for it), is always going to stick out. The situation escalated when Wallace’s staff saw a noose in their stall, which led Wallace to become the target of your uncle’s most deranged conspiracy theories. He did not shy away from the attention, however. Instead, he became a unifying figure in the world outside of NASCAR and the most popular athlete in his sport. And his fellow drivers universally rallied around him.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The biggest figure in sports in 2020 was, inevitably …

Donald Trump. As always, it’s all about him. The unprecedented explosion of political activism in sport was a direct result of Trump, his calling NFL players “sons of bitches,” his loutishness, his xenophobic policies, his overarching racism. Trump, and the desperate desire to get him out of the White House, became the animating influence of so much of sports activism, but his influence went beyond that. His incompetence in reacting to the coronavirus made the crisis so much worse, and his ham-fisted attempts to bring back sports arguably delayed them even longer and made them more scrambled when they did. Trump drove the NFL into a social-justice crisis, turned the NBA and WNBA into the most activist sports leagues on the planet, pushed the NHL bubble out of the country entirely, and attempted to turn college football into a monument to himself. Sports couldn’t escape him, just like the rest of us. The hope is that sports in 2021 will be much calmer and more normal. Getting away from the coronavirus is one of the main reasons. Getting away from Trump is the other.

The 10 Most Important Sports Figures of 2020