Opinion: These women changed sports, and the world, for good in 2020

Opinion: These women changed sports, and the world, for good in 2020

Contradictory as they might seem, the protests by Naomi Osaka, WNBA and NWSL players this year, and the barrier-breaking achievements by women such as Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller and Cleveland Browns assistant Callie Brownson, all come from the same place.

“We always feel like we’re at a disadvantage,” the NWSL’s Crystal Dunn said, “so it makes you feel fearless, in the same breath.”

It is not entirely accurate to call 2020 a watershed in women’s quest for respect and recognition in the sports world. Women don’t have nearly the opportunities as men do, competitively or commercially. Despite rises in TV ratings and sponsor spending for women’s sports, it’s still an uphill battle for visibility. Even as women – Black women, in particular – lead the way in social justice efforts, they too often are overshadowed by male athletes.

While competing at the U.S. Open this year, Naomi Osaka wore seven different masks, each with the name of a Black victim of police brutality. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY S)

And yet, there is no denying that 2020 saw a shift in the way women in sports are seen, that their voices could finally be heard above the din. In a year in which so much was lost, here were measurable gains, advancements that will only be built on in years to come.

“It really has been striking to see the resolve in terms of the global women’s sports community,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College’s Park School of Communications.

“The framing of women’s sports has historically been from a deficit model … what women don’t have. Women don’t have respect, don’t have resources, aren’t seen as equal partners,” Staurowsky said. “But in this crisis, one of the things that has emerged in high relief is that women are having none of that anymore.”

All the people that were telling me to “keep politics out of sports”, (which it wasn’t political at all), really inspired me to win. You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your tv for as long as possible.

They are simply doing what needs to be done. And waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

NWSL players were already feeling the weight of being the test case for every other North American league hoping to resume play in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when George Floyd was killed by a police offcier. Suddenly there were hard and painful, yet absolutely necessary, conversations being had among teammates.

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For the first time, though, it wasn’t just Black players in an overwhelmingly white sport begging to be seen and heard, Dunn said. Instead, it was her white teammates telling her they had her back, that while their experiences might not be similar, their message going forward would be.

When the North Carolina Courage, who Dunn played for then, and the Portland Thorns met for the opener of their Challenge Cup, the starters from both teams knelt during the national anthem.

“Putting out a powerful message, a unified message, was incredible,” Dunn said.

It also gave athletes in other sports cover to protest.

Many athletes had been visible presences at the demonstrations that followed Floyd’s death, and polls were showing a growing acceptance for protests on the playing field. But that was a hypothetical. There hadn’t been a coordinated effort within a league since WNBA players protested police brutality of Black and brown people in 2016, so the NWSL was a test run for this, too.

Within weeks, Major League Soccer, the NBA and the WNBA joined in with their own powerful statements. Some were displays on the field, others were in the form of slogans on jerseys and courts. At the U.S. Open, Osaka wore seven different masks, each with the name of a Black victim of police brutality.

pic.twitter.com/eskmMelBUk

“It made it a movement,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said. “It was this constant … powerful imagery saying, `We’ve had enough.’”

The WNBA even helped altera Senate race in Georgia, endorsing the Rev. Raphael Warnock after Kelly Loeffler, his opponent and co-owner of the league's Atlanta Dream, criticized players for their support of Black Lives Matter.

It was not a surprise to see women athletes exerting their power, said Renee Montgomery, who announced June 18 that she was opting out of the WNBA season to focus on social justice work.

Echoing Dunn, Montgomery said there is a bravery that comes with being constantly marginalized. But there is a resoluteness, too.

“It’s a moral compass that women are following, where right is right and wrong is wrong,” Montgomery said.

It’s that same resoluteness that eventually brings down glass ceilings. 

Hired last month as the general manager of the Marlins, Ng is believed to be the first female GM of any of the major men’s professional sports leagues in North America. It only took her three decades and three World Series titles to get there.

“When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a major league team,” Ng said when she was hired. “But I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals.”

At 31, Brownson has already been an assistant high school football coach, an NFL intern (twice), and both an intern and an assistant on a college staff. Now she’s the Cleveland Browns’ chief of staff – similar to the job her boss had when he broke into the league – and, when tight ends coach Drew Petzing missed Cleveland’s Nov. 29 game following the birth of his first child, the first woman to coach a position group in an NFL regular-season game.

And Fuller, the Vanderbilt kicker, became the first woman to play and, two weeks later, score for a Power Five college football team. 

While the accomplishments of Ng, Brownson and Fuller might appear singular, their power is not, Montgomery said. A woman’s success emboldens other women, and shows both women and men the foolishness of prescribed limitations.

“Women empowering women is a dangerous sight,” Montgomery said, glee in her voice. “Women on their own are empowering enough, so I’m excited for the future.”

A future that, even in the darkness of 2020, looks brighter than when the year began. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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