Protests for racial justice and the pandemic changed the face of sports in 2020. Many changes will survive into 2021.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
And now it's time for sports.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PFEIFFER: If sports are usually a distraction from everyday life, this year, no. From protests against racial injustice and police brutality to a pandemic that upended everything, the world of sports very much reflected this difficult year. And Howard Bryant of ESPN is here to talk about what we've seen and what it could mean for 2021. Good morning, Howard.
HOWARD BRYANT, BYLINE: Good morning. Happy holidays.
PFEIFFER: You too. Let's start with the protests, that period when we saw football, soccer, basketball, tennis players all boycotting games. In historical context, how momentous, how noteworthy was that?
BRYANT: Well, it was enormous. It was the one thing that we had never seen before. We had seen all kinds of different sort of protests, whether it was Colin Kaepernick on the field or whether we saw - it was in 1968 with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. And we've seen certain gestures of protest. This was the first time we'd seen a coordinated walkout across sports.
And I think that what was really fascinating about it was there were numerous people over the course of the year that felt like the players didn't go far enough. So it does portend the possibility once more that the players are going to take even greater steps, depending on what happens in 2021.
And I also feel, too, that, once more, it was the female athletes that really took the lead on this, just like they have over the past five years. And whether it was the WNBA, whether it was Naomi Osaka in tennis, they really did drive this conversation in a way that I don't know if it completely reflected what we saw over the course of the year, but if you were really paying attention, you sort of saw who the leaders were.
PFEIFFER: You know, earlier this month, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee announced it will not sanction athletes who protest at the rescheduled Olympic Games this summer. What's your reaction to that decision?
BRYANT: Well, I think my reaction was, at some point when you look at where we've been this year and where we've been over the last several years, it's very, very difficult for these governing bodies to continue to crack down on these athletes. Are they paying attention to where we are in this culture and where we are in this country? And so I saw a lot of athletes and a lot of sources come to me telling me what a fantastic thing this was. But I also saw it in a different way, which was to say it's common sense in this sort of top-down governance wasn't going to work at this moment in time for the country.
PFEIFFER: Howard, on the pandemic, we saw different sports trying different techniques to keep their players safe - limiting seasons, widespread COVID testing, bubbles. They had mixed results. How would you assess the various approaches?
BRYANT: Well, I think that over the summer - I started to see things a little bit differently. Over the summer, I think when you saw the restart, there was an attitude that the normalcy of it just to see sports was so spectacular in some ways because we really didn't think there were going to be sports, when you're looking at this from April and May.
And then by the middle of the pandemic, by the time we started to get into the fall, you started to wonder if sports just started to feel like, OK, let's get on with it, and safety became second. It was great to see baseball. It was great to see basketball. But it was also something that you're very, very aware of, that the governing bodies of sport and the players and everybody else - you started to wonder if they just said, OK, let's get on with it, and then safety came second. That was very concerning in a lot of ways.
PFEIFFER: It's true.
That's Howard Bryant of ESPN. Howard, thank you.
BRYANT: My pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.