Why this matters
Bill Rhoden is an award-winning sports columnist and current writer and editor for The Undefeated. Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column for the New York Times. They joined Global Sport Matters to reflect on the challenges of 2020 and discuss the future of sport and society in 2021.
In this final stretch of 2020, it’s important to pause and reflect on what we can learn from this year. Everyone has faced unprecedented challenges, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bill Rhoden puts it best. If there were ten major issues this year, he would rank the pandemic as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
“This pandemic has been overwhelming,” he says. “It’s changed our coverage, it’s changed our dynamics with each other, it’s changed the way we do our jobs. It’s changed everything.”
Kurt Streeter agrees, “Everything ties back to the pandemic.”
But if the pandemic holds 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 on the list of 2020’s top ten issues, then it seems that racial injustice is an incredibly close 7, 8, 9, and 10.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery led to global protests against racial injustice. The pandemic itself highlighted persisting health disparities between White people and Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC). These major events led to important anti-racist conversations and actions, as well as significant emotional and social upheaval. Streeter has noticed a sort of collective fatigue.
“I do question the appetite for the general public for an enduring amount of time. It’s very hard for me to imagine that it’s going to keep up the way it is,” he says. “It’s already diminished somewhat. It’s going to be an interesting tension.”
“People talk about COVID-19 fatigue, and there’s racism fatigue,” says Rhoden, who emphasizes that progress is not the same as change. He cites the sport world’s response to calls for racial justice. Many organizations hired chief diversity officers and established funds for community development and racial justice projects.
While these measures are well-intentioned and many athletes have been outspoken advocates and activists, the lack of progress in E-suites is keeping change at arm’s length. Rhoden states that hiring Black coaches, CEOs, vendors, and “creating economic engines” are the next steps for sport organizations. They have the opportunity - and a responsibility - to set the right example. Although many have made considerable efforts, he says, “The magnitude is so enormous that it’s kind of like a thimble in this ocean. Everything is important, but we’re looking at power and control.”
Streeter and Rhoden agree that if there’s one league to look up to it’s the WNBA. Players like Natasha Cloud and Sue Bird pushed for Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) to be removed from her position as an Atlanta Dream co-owner after she objected the players’ support for Black Lives Matter and introduced a bill that would ban transgender women and girls from participating in sports.
The league’s unity, mobilization, and persistent activism is an example of what athletes and organizations can and should strive to accomplish. “The players in that league have been so resolute, so powerful in terms of using their exposure. They really led this movement,” Rhoden says.
“This is nothing new for them,” Streeter says. “They’ve been at the forefront for so much and they’ve got a great legacy to continue. Women activists in sports have been around for a long, long time doing the right thing.”
This new wave of activism among athletes and the general public is special. It comes during an incredibly difficult, yet uniting moment in history. No one can expect what the next year in sport or in their own lives is going to hold, but now is the time to imagine what is possible.
Although no one could have predicted all that 2020 has been, what lessons will the world of sport take into next year?
We asked some of the best and brightest minds to contribute their thoughts.