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Women Provide Courage, Leadership In 2020

Naomi Osaka hitting a tennis ball with a tennis racket
Peter Menzel via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s customary, at the end of a year, for wags and pundits to sum up the previous 12 months in a crude context, by naming those whose reputations have risen and fallen during that time, the winners and losers, If you will.

Goodness knows the year 2020 provided plenty of candidates for each category, most centered around conduct related to either the COVID crisis or the push for social justice or both.

From this vantage point, the best of the best this year includes names like Kara Lawson, Naomi Osaka, Maya Moore, Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe.

Notice a theme? Yes, these are all women. More so than ever, women showed us how to perform in the sporting arena with style, grace and aplomb.

They fought hard in competition, then demonstrated to their male counterparts how to use their visibility to approach the twin challenges of managing the pandemic and fighting for societal change.

Rapinoe helped the U.S. soccer team qualify for the postponed Summer Olympics with a goal in a February international match. Bird, who is engaged to Rapinoe, added a WNBA title—her fourth—to a Hall of Fame resume that includes two NCAA championships and four Olympic gold medals.

Together, the pair spoke out against systemic racism and police brutality, helping colleagues in both sports to find their voices. 

Moore, meanwhile, gave up a second straight basketball season, to fight for the freedom of a Missouri man wrongly convicted on burglary and assault charges. 

Beyond the nobility of helping right a wrong, Moore found another salutary effect of getting Jonathan Irons out of prison: namely a life partner, as the pair married in September.

Also, in September, Osaka added a third Grand Slam title to her trophy case when she captured the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

For her on-court achievements, Osaka was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for 2020. 

Beyond her game, Osaka, the offspring of Japanese and Haitian parents, distinguished herself during the Open by wearing face masks which invoked the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile and other victims of police violence.

While all these women and their colleagues displayed a level of bravery, perhaps the biggest show of courage this year came from Lawson, a former basketball player turned TV analyst.

Lawson left her headset before last season to become the first woman to serve as an assistant coach for the hallowed Boston Celtics.

After a year in Boston, Lawson was tapped this season as head coach of the Duke women’s team, becoming the first African American woman to lead the Blue Devils.

However, Lawson’s distinction is for what she didn’t do. Just four games into her career, Lawson moved to call a halt to her team’s season, out of alarm for COVID exposure to her players.

While officials all over sports are trying to put athletes at risk, Lawson thought her first duty was to keep her players safe. Go figure!

Duke heard Lawson’s concerns and shut the program down last week for the rest of the season.  

Seems that if you wanted to find a profile in courage in sports in 2020, all you had to do was look for a woman.


And that’s how I see it for this week.

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Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.