A Strange Year for Sports
By Shira Dorff
It was a wild year for sports even before the pandemic started. Kicking off 2020, one of the most beloved NBA players, Kobe Bryant, was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others in a tragic helicopter crash. For a lot of people, losing Kobe wasn't like losing a celebrity, it was like losing a close friend or relative. The Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers play, was suddenly covered with flowers, candles, and “Black Mamba” jerseys and merchandise. “Black Mamba” was a nickname Kobe gave himself, named after an assassin from the 2003 movie Kill Bill. According to an interview in 2014 with The New Yorker, Kobe used it to separate his life on and off the court after he was charged with sexual assault in 2003. He wanted people not to think of the negative connotations that his name would bring up, but rather what he did on the court. Then in February, in the wrestling world, the highly anticipated fight between undefeated heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder occured. That match started out memorably with Wilder's 40-pound walk-out outfit and ended with Fury winning the match by knocking Wilder out.
When the news came out in March that the NBA (National Basketball Association) was suspending operations after the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, other sports organizations followed suit. Soon after, the NHL (National Hockey League), MLB (Major League Baseball) , and the NCAA (National College Athletics Association) did the same and closed down. After March’s lockdowns, sports organizations weren't really sure how to continue, but they did.
The first sport to resume during the pandemic was wrestling, with WrestleMania opening in April with a match between Drew Gulak and Cesaro. Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski hosted WrestleMania with zero fans present, but it was broadcast on TV. Later, in May, there was a golf match with Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning vs. Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady. Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning ended up winning the game, but it was a wild ride with lots of smacktalk between old friends and rivals. It was all fun and games until Brady split his pants causing his microphone to break. June was mostly spent wondering when or if Major League Baseball and its players association could agree on anything about the season. During June, there were also many protests led by athletes about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In July, the Washington football team decided to retire their 82-year-old nickname, the “Washington Redskins”, and officially become “The Washington Football Team”. As of now, they have yet to choose a new name or say if they will stick with the current iteration.
In August, both the NBA and NHL returned to play in their respective bubbles. For each bubble, all the players were tested daily and were not allowed out except for family emergencies. Inside the bubbles were places to play basketball and hockey, and hotels for the players to stay. The NBA created their bubble in a Disney Resort in Orlando, Florida. When players weren’t playing basketball, there were plenty of other things to do, including cards, beach volleyball, golf, and cornhole. The San Antonio Spurs even had a ping pong tournament. Everywhere on social media you could find videos of NBA players hanging out in between games. The NBA bubble started out with eight play-in games to determine what the final seedings would be for the playoffs. After those eight games, the playoffs started. The Finals consisted of the Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Lebron James and Anthony Davis. After six games, the Lakers won their first Championship since 2010. Many people would say that they won this championship for Kobe, who had died early that year.
The NHL had two bubbles for their playoffs: in Edmonton (the capital city of the Canadian province of Alberta) for the western conference and in Toronto (the capital city of the Canadian province of Ontario) for the eastern conference. There weren't as many fun games to play in the NHL bubble, but it was enough to finish the season and crown a winner. At the end of the bubble, the Tampa Bay Lightning emerged as the champions.
Both the NBA and NHL bubbles were very successful in avoiding COVID; in fact, both the NHL and NBA bubbles had no COVID cases. However, that did not mean that other sports leagues like the MLB and the NFL would play their seasons in a bubble. The NBA and NHL essentially skipped to the playoffs for their bubbles because their seasons had been cut short by COVID. However, baseball and football had a more daunting challenge of trying to play an entire season in the midst of a pandemic. The players for both baseball and football refused to be relegated to a bubble for a whole season, so both leagues attempted to play a season without the protection of a shielded environment. Both leagues had a few outbreaks, like the Miami Marlins (MLB) and Baltimore Ravens (NFL), but the leagues were determined to complete their seasons. By the playoffs, the MLB decided to bubble because they didn't want there to be COVID outbreaks during the playoffs, and both the NBA and NHL had set good examples. After MLB bubbled, there were no more outbreaks and they were able to finish their season, crowning the Los Angeles Dodgers the champions, the first time since 1988.
Fans were thrilled when the NFL finally returned on September 10, 2020. There were a few outbreaks that threatened the season, but that didn't stop the league. However, it is not just for playing through a pandemic that this season should be known, but for the crazy plays like the “Hail Murray” in the Bills-Cardinals game. In the last few seconds of the game, Cardinals Quarterback Kyler Murray threw a hail mary down the field. It was caught by Cardinals star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone for a touchdown, which ended the game. Reporters started calling the play “Hail Murray” as a play on the words “hail mary”. This NFL season should also be known for the Super Bowl blending the old and the new of the league. This season, Tom Brady made it to his tenth Super Bowl, breaking his own record of not only most Super Bowls by a quarterback, but also being the oldest quarterback to start in the Super Bowl at age 43. In Super Bowl 55, he and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the defending champions in Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Super Bowl 55 was the first Super Bowl to be a home game for one of the teams, as the Super Bowl was played in the Buccaneers’ stadium in Tampa Bay. This Super Bowl was a melding of a key player of an old dynasty against the new dynasty that has taken over the league. In the end, the Buccaneers ended up winning 33-9, while the Chief just fell apart.
Sports leagues across America were able to go against the odds of the pandemic and complete playoffs and seasons during COVID. Not everyone wanted sports leagues to continue, even some of the players. Many players opted out of their sport’s season because they either thought it wasn't going to be safe or they wanted to stay home and take care of their families. However, most fans wanted sports to continue. Noah Cohen ‘26 said “I think this was obviously not the ideal football year, but it still happened! I have loved watching [football] every Sunday.” For most people, watching sports gave them a sense of normalcy during this difficult time. Despite all that has happened this past year, sports were able to preserve part of our cherished routines and traditions, like cheering on our favorite football team every Sunday.