Of all the brilliant fireworks of the 2019 sports season, the colour purple — and the woman who wore it — defined the year.
Megan Rapinoe brazenly led the U.S. women’s national soccer team to a World Cup victory in France in July, her purple hair a banner for the right to be different, but equal. In a polarized political climate, the championship reminded us of the growing power of athletes and their voices.
Stick to sports? Not possible today when politics, society and money are more thickly interwoven than the flags the athletes represent.
Rapinoe and her teammates led the charge for equal pay with their men’s team counterparts, suing the national soccer federation for gender discrimination in March. With their case pending and the team marching through the World Cup, Rapinoe then sparred with U.S. President Donald Trump over his stance on racial justice. She promised (in salty language) not to visit the White House if the team won. Trump told her to win first.
On the steps of New York’s City Hall for the ticker-tape parade, Rapinoe used her platform with the same precision and unabashed style she showed as the top goal scorer in the World Cup.
“This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better. We have to love more and hate less, listen more and talk less,” she said, adding, “It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.”
Did she inspire us to redefine the meaning of sports in 2019?
“No question, we have had a front-row seat to history in terms of the message that Megan Rapinoe has so eloquently expressed about the human condition,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University. “It’s a combination of both the woman and the moment.”
At the end of a divisive year and at the end of a tumultuous decade, sports have become even more relevant. Long a bastion for abuse, homophobia, misogyny and injury, the sporting world has started to embrace diversity, vulnerability, gender equity and activism.
Consider the ripples of change from this year. The Toronto Raptors, a Canadian team stocked with international talent from places such as Africa and Spain, won the NBA title in 2019. NFL star quarterback Andrew Luck retired at 29 because he wanted to break the cycle of injury and pain that football players are supposed to accept.
Brandon Brooks, a Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman, left a game because of an anxiety attack and said he was not ashamed. The Australian rugby federation terminated the contract of its star player, Israel Folau, who is a fervent Christian, for his social-media posts about gay people. On Instagram, he said they were going to hell.
In response to the U.S. women’s soccer team, women’s teams from Brazil, Australia, Ireland, Denmark and Norway also demanded to be paid equally by their soccer federations. At the end of the World Cup in Lyon, France — and during the U.S. women’s celebratory tour across the country — children and adults in the stands made “equal pay” their rallying cry.
A month after the team won the World Cup, mediation talks between the soccer federation and the women broke down. A judge set a May, 2020, trial date, two months before the Olympics in Tokyo.
Mary Jo Kane, founder of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said the women’s national team tapped into the social-justice beliefs of the millennial generation.
“For the first time, they created in young women a sense of entitlement,” Kane added. “When they were criticized for using their platform to argue for pay equity, their response wasn’t to apologize, it was to double down and to troll their critics. Of course, the most important thing is that they won.”
This was a year when gymnast Simone Biles became the most decorated gymnast (man or woman) in world championship history, with 25 total medals. She became the first woman gymnast to land a triple twist-double flip to win her sixth national all-around title.
And this came a year after Biles revealed on Twitter that she was one of the hundreds of athletes sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team doctor. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that USA Gymnastics had concealed her concerns of abuse by Nassar as early as 2015.
“The very juxtaposition of Simone Biles’s greatness in contrast to the depths of mistreatment and betrayal on the part of USA Gymnastics speaks volumes about her,” Staurowsky said. “You would hope that these kinds of stories that have been amplified this year would lead to the substantive change that sport needs.”
Today, athletes have more avenues than ever for speaking out. Social media has blurred boundaries between fans and stars, and streaming digital content has provided opportunities.
In a series of Op-Docs for the New York Times, Olympic runners Alysia Montano and Allyson Felix revealed that after they gave birth, their sponsor Nike financially penalized them for not meeting performance standards. They demanded a maternity leave that guaranteed no reduction in pay and, under pressure, Nike changed its policy.
Nike’s running division oscillated between catastrophe and controversial achievement in 2019. On Oct. 1, the prized coach of the Nike Oregon Project, marathon legend Alberto Salazar, was banned from the sport for four years for facilitating doping, including “trafficking in testosterone.”
The Houston endocrinologist the team worked with, Jeffrey Brown, was also given a four-year ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Salazar had been coaching some of the world’s top runners and Nike promptly disbanded the project.
But two months later, an additional athlete exposed another troubling side to the “win-at-all-costs” mentality within the project. Mary Cain, once the top high-school runner in the United States who joined the Oregon Project, revealed in another Op-Doc that Salazar systematically berated her over her weight and dismissed her psychological trauma.
Other female Olympians who trained under Salazar, most notably Kara Goucher, loudly supported Cain.
This outrage occurred in the blur of celebration from two other Nike athletes this fall. One of the last barriers of performance — the sub-two-hour marathon — fell in 2019.
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, the world-record holder and defending Olympic champion, shattered the mark in 1 hour 59 minutes 40 seconds. That time, although, was not a sanctioned world record because he did it on a closed, flat course in Vienna with a phalanx of 41 rotating professional runners pacing him.
He wore an unreleased (but not banned) version of Nike’s Vaporfly Next% shoes, with three carbon-fiber plates stacked in the midsole.
The next day, at the Chicago Marathon, Brigid Kosgei, wearing another version of the Nike Vaporfly Next%, set a sanctioned world record by running 2:14:04, breaking Paula Radcliffe’s mark — which had stood for 16 years — by 81 seconds.
This was progress, but was it mechanical doping? It roiled the running world with new questions about the meaning of human performance.
The year 2019 will also be remembered for quantifying that value. After years of advocacy, collegiate athletes won the right to be paid for endorsements in California.
In September, Governor Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat, signed the Fair Pay to Play Act on LeBron James’s TV show, The Shop, on HBO. Katelyn Ohashi, a gymnast from UCLA who could not capitalize financially after her perfect floor exercise routine went viral in January, was there to support the bill.
“It’s about equity, it’s about fairness and it’s about time,” Newsom said the day he announced the signing.
From the department of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” look no further than the New England Patriots. The 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the 2019 Super Bowl gave the Patriots their sixth title with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
On the tennis court, the Big Three still dominated. Rafael Nadal, finishing No. 1 in the world, won the French Open and the U.S. Open. Novak Djokovic, No. 2, won the other two Grand Slam men’s singles titles in Australia and Wimbledon, needing a five-set thriller to outlast Roger Federer.
As for throwbacks, Tiger Woods won the Masters in 2019, at 43, his first major golf tournament victory in more than a decade. Trump, who plays golf with Woods, hailed him for his comeback in golf and in life, and a month later he awarded Woods the highest civilian order, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, at the White House.
It was that kind of whiplash between sports-induced euphoria and the prickly reality of politics that seemed to define this season.
The Washington Nationals became the darling of the baseball world after starting the season 19-31, with a 1.5-per-cent chance to win the World Series. But the 1 per cent did what no team had ever done: captured a World Series in which the visiting team won every game. Against the Houston Astros, the Nationals brought home Washington’s first title since 1924. (Just three weeks before the Nationals won, the Washington Mystics set the city stage in capturing the franchise’s first WNBA title.)
For all of the Nationals’ late-night heroics — “Stay in the Fight” was their motto — the team will also be remembered for what happened around and off the field. During Game 5, celebrity activist chef Jose Andres threw out the first pitch, not Trump. The President did attend the game and fans greeted him mostly with boos.
Just five days after winning the World Series, the home team found itself embroiled in backlash by accepting a White House invitation.
Catcher Kurt Suzuki wore a “Make America Great Again” hat. Pitcher Sean Doolittle conspicuously stayed away. Doolittle, an activist who has worked with refugees, told the Washington Post that he could not support the U.S. President because he uses divisive rhetoric, mocks the disabled, does not respect gay rights and has a poor record on racial justice.
To win the NBA title, Toronto ended the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty with an eclectic group: Pascal Siakam of Cameroon, Marc Gasol of Spain, Serge Ibaka of Congo and Los Angeles-born Kawhi Leonard, all assembled by Masai Ujiri, the Raptors general manager, who is a Briton of Nigerian heritage.
One moment of dissonance that threatened the NBA’s reputation and underscored the disruptive power of sports began when Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, sent a tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters on Oct. 4, the eve of the Rockets playing a preseason game in China: “Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong.”
The Chinese government was furious and demanded that the NBA fire Morey. After a tepid first response, Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, asserted Morey’s right to free speech and said he would not even discipline him.
Chinese companies pulled their sponsorship from the NBA and refused until late in the year to broadcast games.
Closer to home, the athlete who set off the modern sports protest movement still remained without a job. Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who had knelt during the national anthem in 2016, had a free-agent workout in Atlanta that dissolved bitterly into distrust between his camp and the NFL. More than a dozen team scouts decided not to attend.
Rapinoe, more than any other athlete this year, took on Kaepernick’s charge. “I believe she became the female equivalent of Colin Kaepernick,” said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “She is somebody who’s going to make athlete activism more common than it’s been, and you’re probably going to know her better as someone who made change than even as a great soccer player.”
Rapinoe was one of the first female athletes to kneel — during the anthem at a Seattle Reign professional league game — and she credits Kaepernick in virtually every speech. She has argued for criminal-justice reform and addiction awareness since her older brother, a recovering heroin addict, has been in jail. She and her girlfriend, basketball star Sue Bird, have fiercely advocated for LGBTQ rights.
In December, Rapinoe won the final soccer award of the season, the Ballon d’or, where she beat out Ada Hegerberg of Norway, who sat out the World Cup as her own protest of gender equity. In her acceptance speech, Rapinoe called on soccer’s male superstars, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to condemn racism, homophobia and sexism in soccer.
They have not responded. There’s always next year.