2020 has been a struggle. From wildfires around the world to the coronavirus pandemic to tragic deaths, this year has been riddled with trial and, often, a feeling of despair.

When society struggles, we look to sports for hope. Sports have long mended wounds, rallying communities together to help them get through pain. Supporting our favorite athletes and teams offers an escape from stress, a vehicle for social connection, and inspiration to believe that we can rise above our challenges.

And this year, we’ve needed that mental boost more than ever before. 

Though COVID-19 threatened to derail the athletic calendar, organizations swatted that prospect away like Dikembe Mutombo. Professional leagues got creative. They adjusted their schedules. They instituted bubbles and testing protocols. They spent lots of time on Zoom. And somehow, thank the goodness, we were still able to enjoy the beauty of sports in 2020.

During this tumultuous year, a number of athletes have embraced the opportunity to step up as leaders. They’ve stood tall on the platform afforded to them by their athletic gifts. Here are 10 who made particularly impactful statements in 2020.

 

Naomi Osaka

The number one ranked women’s tennis player in the world won her second US Open title in 2020. During the tournament, which Osaka entered seeded fourth, the 23-year-old made a bold expression of support for Black Lives Matter. 

She sported black masks during her matches (eventually wearing seven in total), with each bearing the name of a Black individual who had been killed by police. For example, one mask read “George Floyd,” and another said “Breonna Taylor.”

Osaka dropped the first set of her final match against Victoria Azarenka, but she rallied back to win, becoming the first women’s player in 26 years to claim the US Open title after dropping the opening set. At the US Open, Osaka embodied the reality that athletes can inspire us with both their competitive performances and actions away from the field of play.

Osaka was known for being shy in her early years on the WTA Tour, but she left no doubt that she has found her voice in 2020. In addition to sporting the masks, she joined in protests and even wrote an op-ed in Esquire. Her activism has even extended to her work with Beats. Osaka is the star of the Beats “You Love Me” campaign, and can also be seen in another new spot for the headphone brand entering a tennis court wearing the phrase “Silence is Violence” beaded into her braids, showing all the world that Black lives do indeed matter. 

 

Bradley Beal

A Washington Wizards guard and a two-time All-Star, Bradley Beal has long supported Black Lives Matter, and was one of the NBA’s most vocal social justice leaders during 2020.

For example, during a Juneteenth march, he and fellow former Wizard John Wall led teammates in chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police” with supporters marching behind them. Ahead of the march, Beal spoke to the crowd about a troubling interaction he had with DC police.

In part because of the leadership of Beal and Wall, the team released one of the strongest statements in pro sports, stating, We Will No Longer Tolerate the Assassination of People of Color in This Country.” 

Beal also garnered headlines when he participated in a fascinating interview with The Undefeated about his increased outspokenness, continued education, and why in 2020 he voted for the first time.

“My grandparents were born in the 1930s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that they earned the right to vote,” Beal said. “They’re blessed to be able to see how far we’ve come today. But to see how far we still have to go, it’s important we keep up the fight.”

 

Maya Moore

Think about this for a second: Maya Moore is a four-time WNBA champ, six-time All-Star, a former MVP, and a Finals MVP. And yet, at the age of 29, she announced she was taking a sabbatical from basketball. 

The reason? Moore was driven to pursue her faith and find her life’s purpose. In 2020, that purpose seemed to be realized.

Moore began actively working to reform the American civil justice system. She fought for the release of Jonathan Irons, who was serving a 50-year sentence for a 1998 conviction for first-degree assault. 

Irons was a poor Black teen who had been convicted by an all-white jury, despite a lack of evidence tying him to the crime. In large part because of Moore’s efforts, he was released in July 2020.

“She saved my life,” Irons told The New York Times upon his release. “I would not have had this chance if not for her and her wonderful family.” 

Moore said Irons’ release made her feel "redemption" for taking time away from the game and Time named the former UConn Husky one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Her hiatus is ongoing.

 

Israel Adesanya

Israel Adesanya is one of the baddest men on the planet. The 31-year-old UFC fighter is number 3  in the organization’s pound-for-pound rankings, behind only Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones.

He fought twice this year, both times defending the UFC Middleweight Championship. The fighter known as the Stylebender defeated Yoel Romero by decision in March and knocked out Paulo Costa on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi in September. 

In addition to his continued dominance in the Octagon, the Nigerian-born resident of New Zealand spoke at a June rally in Auckland following the death of Floyd, delivering a stirring speech. When he spoke, Adesanya explained that “We’ve been marching for so long, but it’s not just about us now. Shout out to all the white people, all the people of different races being here because we need you. We need you to speak up. We need you to say something.”

 

Kyrie Irving

Kyrie missed much of his first season with the Nets, as he underwent season-ending surgery on his shoulder in February, yet the 2011 number one overall pick remained in the headlines.

Most notably, he challenged his fellow players to boycott the NBA’s return. He was not in favor of the bubble, because he didn’t feel it was right to play basketball while Black people were dying in the streets. 

Uncle Drew also said he was willing to give up everything for justice, sharing on a conference call with more than 80 NBA players that he was “not with the systematic racism and the bullshit… something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as Black men every day we wake up,” according to The Athletic

During a series of Zoom calls, as the players weighed whether or not to play, Irving spoke his mind. Though the NBA did ultimately return, a number of players—including Nets teammates DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Wilson Chandler—chose not to play.

Irving also was vocal about the state of race in America, expressing his opposition to white supremacy. In addition to often espousing his perspective on Instagram, the Nets All-Star guard produced a TV special (#sayhername) on Breonna Taylor, a project he completed in partnership with Common and Jemele Hill.

 

Dak Prescott

This season hasn’t gone as Dak Prescott would’ve liked. The Cowboys were widely considered a Super Bowl contender, yet they’re 3-8 and coach Mike McCarthy’s job is already in jeopardy.

Further, Prescott—playing on a one-year franchise tag—suffered a compound fracture to his right ankle against the Giants in Week 5, a gruesome, season-ending injury. 

Nonetheless, Prescott marked 2020 with his brave efforts to normalize conversations about mental health. The Dallas QB’s older brother, Jace, committed suicide in April. In September, Prescott opened up about his own struggles to maintain mental health, as he has battled depression and anxiety, with the coronavirus making his challenges particularly pronounced.

“I think it's huge,” Prescott said on In Depth With Graham Bensinger. “I think it’s huge to talk. I think it’s huge to get help. And it saves lives.”

Prescott, following in the footsteps of athletes like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, deserves praise for his vulnerability, especially considering he knew he’d face criticism.

 

LeBron James

King James is 35 and somehow still playing like he’s 25. In 2020, the 2003 number one overall pick claimed his fourth NBA title, partnering with Anthony Davis to lead the Lakers back to the pinnacle of the league. 

Reclaiming the throne was extra special for Lakers fans, of course, because this was the year in which Kobe Bryant tragically passed away. James, who earned his fourth Finals MVP, dedicated the year to the Black Mamba.

In addition to his continued rewriting of the record books, James also furthered his legacy as one of sports’ all-time champions for social justice. He repeatedly spoke out on issues of racial inequality and in support of Black Lives Matter.

For example, following the killing of Taylor, James spoke out at a press conference, explaining that “We want the cops arrested who committed that crime. As one of the leaders of this league, I want her family to know and the state of Kentucky to know that we feel for her and we want justice.”

And during the playoffs, he wore a hat reading “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.” A statement like that coming from the biggest name in the game? It’s a big deal.

James also led the “More Than a Vote” initiative, which— behind the support of prominent athletes and artists—facilitated a mass sign-up of volunteer poll workers. As millions looked to LeBron for guidance this year, he was on top of his game—both on and off the court.

 

Mookie Betts

Betts won his second World Series in 2020 and made Boston fans repeatedly say, “Why did we ever let that guy go?” He also signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers, too, ensuring he’ll be in Los Angeles for a very long time. Get paid, young man!

In addition to inking the third-richest contract in North American pro sports history and putting up numbers that warranted MVP runner-up honors, Betts led MLB players in pushing for social justice.

First, he challenged his boss’ boss—the league itself—for its insufficient efforts to address social justice matters. He also appeared in a video with fellow MLB players voicing their support for BLM.

Later that month, Betts kneeled during the national anthem. And then, in August, after Jacob Blake was shot, Betts chose to boycott the Dodgers’ game. His teammates followed suit. 

“For me, I think that no matter what I wasn’t going to play tonight,” Betts told Dodgers Nation. “Just because I have to stand by my guns here… there’s a lot going on in the world, and change needs to be made.”

 

Zdeno Chara

During 2020, each major North American sports league had a few players step up as key leaders. In the NHL, Chara was one of the central figures. 

In June, following Floyd’s murder, the towering, 43-year-old defenseman attended a BLM protest and shared a heartfelt statement on Instagram.

Then in August, NHL players chose to sit out two days of playoff games in the Toronto (East) and Edmonton (West) bubbles. Chara, whose Bruins boycotted their game against Tampa Bay, led a contingent of athletes from the Eastern Conference who spoke at an August press conference.

Though they were in the thrust of competition—caught up in the heat of the push for the Stanley Cup—it was clear the athletes had been united by the cause. Much of that can be attributed to NHL leaders like Chara.

“We thought it was the right thing to do for us to take a stand… we need to step back, reflect a little bit and take a moment to realize what is going on,” Chara told the press. “Obviously, there is a problem in the States and there’s a right reason that all of the major sports are doing what they are doing right now. We all realize there needs to be a change.”

 

Jaylen Brown

The season came to a disappointing end for the Celtics, who fell to the red-hot Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the 2016 number three overall pick had a career year. He put up career-best averages of 20.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 2.1 APG while shooting 48.1% from the field.

In addition, Brown organized a BLM protest in Atlanta following the murder of Floyd.

“As a unit, the relationship between our society, people of color, and our police force and their relationship needs to improve, because it really isn’t there,” Brown said, according to NBC. “There is no relationship. Like, people where I’m from, I’ve got family members, brothers, sisters, who have never called the police ever for no type of protection.

The Georgia native was vocal throughout the year, speaking out after the deaths of John Lewis and Taylor. 

Much like Osaka, the 24-year-old Brown has clearly found his voice—and we saw just how powerful that voice can be in 2020.