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LeBron James, Naomi Osaka and Dak Prescott: 20 sports figures who made the world a better place in 2020

  • December 17, 2020

From the COVID-19 pandemic and all the heartbreak it has caused, to the trauma and pain felt through the push for racial equality, 2020 was a challenging year for the entire United States.

While it was also a year in which all sports leagues paused their calendar in some form, sports figures used their platforms to spread awareness on issues of gender, race, equality, health and safety, mental health, motherhood and several others.

Here are 20 sports figures who made the world a better place in 2020.

LeBron James

The Los Angeles Lakers star forward won another NBA title, but his greatest achievement is what he did away from the court. James helped found the “More Than A Vote” organization, which promoted voter registration within historically underrepresented Black communities.

LeBron James has tried on and off the court to get out the vote this year. [Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images]

The organization partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to recruit 40,000 poll workers and helped register Florida voters with felony records so long as they were unrelated to murder or sexual assault. James also played a key role in ensuring that 23 out of 30 NBA teams used their home arenas or practice facilities as voting sites.

James has also continued to be an advocate for mental health through his partnership with the Calm app. And when the pandemic forced schools in Ohio to close in March, his I Promise School kept its Family Resource Center open, partnered with a local food bank to give food and essential care items in care packages to all enrolled students and remained open for any families that needed shelter, clothing or other assistance.

Sarah Fuller

A goalkeeper on Vanderbilt’s women’s soccer squad, Fuller joined the football team in late November and became the first woman to play in a Power Five football game

connecting on both her extra-point attempts against Tennessee.

Fuller, certainly, will go on to inspire a generation of girls to push themselves to follow in her footsteps and a generation of boys to be more tolerant and accepting.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif

The starting right guard of the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, Duvernay-Tardif became the first known NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season, due to concerns about the transmission of COVID-19. 

taking online classes at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.sat out gameschampioned voting rights and registration measures. For example, Los Angeles Sparks players Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike served as volunteers at a drive-thru voting station in Houston’s Toyota Center.served as a poll volunteer at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Megan Rapinoe

The U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder has taken up multiple causes.  One of the central voices in the fight for equal pay for the women’s soccer team when compared to their male counterparts, Rapinoe has also spoken out against systemic injustices and for LGBTQ rights.

Rapinoe and WNBA star Sue Bird announced their engagement in October and became a powerful symbol for the way they openly have shared their love for each other. Rapinoe has kneeled during the playing of the national anthem as a protest of inequality and narrated a Nike ad that explores issues of race, gender and equality.

Rapinoe has advocated for voting rights and stressed the importance of everyone participating in the 2020 election. Almost at every turn, whenever she has had the chance to speak publicly, she has used her platform to champion the causes important to her.

following his brother’s suicide. Prescott showed true leadership by opening up and making himself vulnerable, becoming a role model for millions who are also struggling with depression and anxiety.

“Mental health leads to the health of everything else,” Prescott said in September. “Before I can lead, I have to make sure my mind is in the right place to do that and lead people to where they want to be. I think that it’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine and to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many and you can inspire.”

Prescott faced some criticism about addressing his vulnerabilities, including from Fox Sports’ Skip Bayless. Prescott continued to lead in spreading awareness on the importance of mental health.

Prescott, after the killing of George Floyd, pledged $1 million to help improve police training and address systemic racism after he said he was “disgusted and unsettled” over the incident. He also wrote an open letter to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and the state’s parole board, advocating for the release of death row inmate Julius Jones.

Matt Dumba and Evander Kane

The first NHL player to take a knee during the pre-game playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice, Dumba has been one of the most proactive minority NHL players to question the way the league – and the country as a whole – has handled racism. Dumba, a defenseman for the Minnesota Wild, said he will raise his fist during the playing of the anthems, rather than kneel.

were instrumental in creating the player-formed Hockey Diversity Alliance, which strives to eliminate racism in hockey and bring the game to minority communities that might not otherwise be exposed to it.

Both Dumba and Kane criticized the NHL for their inaction after the shooting of  Blake, as other leagues halted play.

Naomi Osaka

The highest-paid female athlete in the world, Osaka has used her platform as one of the top tennis competitors to bring awareness to racial inequalities in an evolution that has seen her champion issues far bigger than sport.

After the killing of George Floyd in May, she flew to Minneapolis to take part in protests. On Juneteenth, she posted a photo of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” a 1961 book about the psychology of colonization in African countries. In July, she authored a piece for Esquire magazine talking about racism not just in the United States, where she has spent most of her life, but in Japan, the country she represents as a citizen.

At this year’s U.S. Open, which she went on to win, Osaka wore seven different masks before and after her matches, each bearing the name of a different Black American killed by racial profiling or unnecessary police violence.

Osaka said. “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”

Maya Moore

No other professional athlete has sacrificed more in their career than the Minnesota Lynx star, who has won two Olympic gold medals and four WNBA championships. Prior to the pandemic, Moore announced that she would be skipping the 2020 Olympic Games before they were pushed to 2021.

That was in addition to the second consecutive WNBA season that she was sitting out. She did that because she was fighting for the freedom of a Missouri inmate she believed was wrongly convicted, Jonathan Irons. Beginning in 2016, she began to advocate his case publicly, helping to pay for his defense team and attending several of his courtroom hearings while he’s continued to maintain his innocence. 

Moore’s work paid off. In July, she was waiting outside of the prison doors and watched as Irons was released as a free man. In September, they announced that they had married.

Not since Muhammad Ali has the country seen an athlete sacrifice so much for a just cause.

Patrick Mahomes

The star quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, Mahomes helped pay for the costs of using Arrowhead Stadium as a polling place for the 2020 election, through donations from his “15 and the Mahomies” foundation.

“I thought it was very important,” Mahomes said on the “Huddle Flow” podcast. “Not only just to get as many people out to vote as possible, but also to use a place (such) as Arrowhead where we have a lot of fun, show a lot of love and unity with people coming together, and use it as a place where we can come together to vote and use our voice.”

Mahomes also used his platform to encourage others to vote by admitting that he was a first-time voter.

In July, Mahomes also became part-owner of MLB’s Royals. (In February, he dazzled on his way to helping the Chiefs win Super Bowl LIV, where he captured the game’s MVP award.)

Alex Morgan

Morgan has joined Rapinoe as another prominent advocate in the fight for equal pay for the women’s national team. The forward was also an advocate for racial equality when the entire USWNT squad wore shirts that said “Black Lives Matter” before a match against the Netherlands in November.

announced the birth of their daughter. Throughout her pregnancy, she maintained that she would continue to train and would look ahead to the resumption of her career, even as others wondered aloud about whether it would impact it.

“Casual fans of the game were just like, ‘Why would she do something like that during the peak of her career?’ ” Morgan said in February in an interview with Glamour. “It’s not like women can’t do both—our bodies are incredible — it’s the fact that this world isn’t really set up for women to thrive. That was one thing where I was like, ‘Do I want to be public with this?’ This is my body, my family, my life.”

signed with Tottenham in September and scored her first goal with the club earlier this month.

Kim Ng

In November, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng to be their general manager. Ng became the first woman to hold that position. In fact, the Marlins said they believed Ng, 52, was the first woman to hold the general manager title for any of the major men’s professional sports leagues in North America. She became the second person of Asian descent to lead a major league organization.

not just in baseball, but in all sports.

Doc Rivers

In August, as teams played in the NBA bubble, several figures in the league spoke out against racial inequality after the Blake shooting. Rivers, then the Clippers coach, gave an impassioned answer when asked about these issues.

NASCAR officially banned the flag days after Wallace’s comments.

That same day, Wallace raced with a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme on his No. 43 car.

Though an FBI investigation later revealed that there was no crime committed, a noose was found in the Wallace team garage at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama; the noose had been in the garage since 2019, according to the U.S. attorney and FBI. But prior to that announcement, Wallace spoke out against racism and NASCAR’s drivers overwhelmingly voiced their support.

Wallace even took the high road, offering a message of love and understanding after he was called out by President Donald Trump on Twitter.

Josh Speidel

A testament to hard work, determination and positivity, the Vermont Catamounts basketball player overcame odds and a traumatic brain injury to become an inspiration. After a car accident nearly took his life five and a half years ago, Speidel was in a coma for five weeks, according to ESPN.

The accident happened when Speidel was in high school, but Catamounts coach John Becker kept Speidel on scholarship. Then, on Senior Night in February, Vermont honored Speidel with a place in the starting lineup in a game against Albany and his first collegiate points. 

Albany won the opening tip and quickly scored in an arranged agreement that allowed Vermont to then give the ball to Speidel for a layup. Officials stopped the game, with players and coaches from both teams congratulating Speidel before he walked off the court to a standing ovation.

kneel for the national anthem Aug. 26, after news of the decision of the Bucks and other sports teams to postpone their games in light of the Blake shooting. Making sure to not force his views on his white teammates, Smith asked only for their attention.

“If you give your time, that’s the only way we can change,” he said after the game.

Smith spoke through tears and confronted the pain that he and many other Americans felt that day.

shooting of Blake in August, the NBA was set to continue its schedule inside its bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Milwaukee took a significant step and refused to take the floor for its first-round playoff game Aug. 26, calling for meaningful police reform.

“Despite the overwhelming pleas for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball,” the Bucks said in a statement.

The decision helped spark a number of postponements in the NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS.

In light of the decision to postpone, the Bucks players came up with a list of objectives they wanted, including asking the Wisconsin State Legislature “to take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.”

Sean Doolittle

As the pandemic continued to ravage communities across the country, the conversation about returning to sports over the summer prompted debate about whether it was ethical to do so. 

Critics said that the return of sports would only worsen the spread and would divert invaluable resources like personal protective equipment and testing away from communities in need. Proponents said sports would be a welcome diversion and would help stimulate some economic growth. 

Doolittle, who participated in the 2020 season, offered a measured and cautious take about the merits of playing in a pandemic.

“We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back,” Doolittle said in July. “Sports are like the reward of a functional society, and we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say.”

Michele Roberts

The executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, Roberts was a key figure in just about every major social justice initiative the NBA players launched as a league. She was instrumental in helping design what would become the bubble in Lake Buena Vista. It was her guidance, with the push of players like James and Chris Paul that ultimately convinced the NBA to have “Black Lives Matter” painted on every court used in the resumed season. She also helped players fight for the use of social justice messages on the back of jerseys. She helped negotiate a deal that started a foundation “to expand educational and economic opportunities across the Black Community.”

 After the players opted to sit out games in late August after the shooting of Blake, Roberts helped players negotiate with ownership and NBA leadership to get a commitment to use various arenas as voting sites.

Dany Garcia

Dany Garcia became the first woman to own a professional sports league when she and her ex-husband, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, bought the XFL in August. It’s a trail-blazing accomplishment for Garcia, who had created a successful business portfolio in wealth management before she created The Garcia Companies and serves as its chairwoman.

Garcia, who is the daughter of Cuban immigrants, and Johnson announced that the XFL would resume play in the spring of 2022.

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