On March 8, the University of Maryland men’s basketball team beat Michigan, 87-70, in front of a capacity crowd at Xfinity Center to win a share of the Big Ten regular season title. Afterward, hundreds of fans packed the court, standing shoulder to shoulder, to celebrate with coach Mark Turgeon and his players. Turgeon was ebullient—and relieved. It was his first Big Ten title with Maryland.
“Does anybody see the thousand-pound gorilla that was on my back that left, not here anymore?” Turgeon asked the crowd gathered during the trophy presentation.
I was there to report a feature on senior Anthony Cowan Jr., one of the program’s most accomplished players who had a penchant for using criticism and doubts as motivation. In his final season for the Terps, Cowan was finally getting the respect he and those around him felt he deserved. The Prince George’s County native, who starred at St. John’s College High School in Northwest, envisioned that a successful showing at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments would only improve his chances at the upcoming NBA Draft.
None of that happened. Just three days later, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely after a player tested positive for COVID-19. The following day, the Big Ten canceled its tournament, and the NCAA followed shortly after. Cowan and countless other players would never get the chance to prove themselves on college basketball’s biggest stage in 2020.
If 2019 was the year that D.C. became a bona fide championship city, then 2020 was the year of lost opportunities, altered perspectives, deferred dreams, and countless “what ifs.” The defending World Series champion Washington Nationals never get a hero’s welcome at Nats Park, and the Washington Mystics never got their parade.
Sports, a constant source of comfort in many people’s lives, halted, just as any sense of normalcy did during a global pandemic. Survival, not trophies, became the first priority. Athletes played an increasing role in social activism, spurred by this summer’s protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism. Others sought solace in new activities like running or roller skating. No sector of the sports industry has been unaffected, but major sports leagues continue to find ways to carry on games as COVID-19 cases spike across the country.
While major sporting events in the United States, like the NCAA basketball tournaments, were canceled, and the NBA, MLB, and NHL suspended or postponed their seasons, organizers of the largest sporting event in the world planned to carry on through the pandemic.
The Tokyo Olympics feared any delay in the Summer Games would cost billions of dollars and did not officially delay the event, originally set to run in Japan from July 24 to Aug. 9, until late March. That indecision, coupled with the piecemeal cancelations of competitions and the closure of athletic facilities, meant that athletes who have trained years for their potential Olympic moment had to alter their regimented schedules to reflect the ever changing situation.
“I think it’s just hard to keep up,” local swimming coach Bruce Gemmell told City Paper in late March. “You think, OK, they’ve canceled all the swim meets through April, next day, it’s through the end of April, and then, the next day, they might move the Olympics. It’s hard to keep up and adapt your training based on what’s happening.”
For some Olympic hopefuls that carefully mapped out their careers and personal lives around the Games, that meant putting off life plans for another year and adjusting their goals. But at least most of them now still have the Olympics, scheduled for next summer, to train toward. The pandemic has eliminated college, high school, and youth sports seasons across the country, and some colleges have used the ensuing financial fallout as a reason to cut non-revenue sports programs.
“As a team, we put in so much sweat and tears preparing for our season,” Olivia Beach, a 2016 graduate of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda who played lacrosse at Slippery Rock University, told City Paper in June. “Just not being able to finish that out as a team is really heartbreaking.”
The National Women’s Soccer League went first.
With the United States having the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, the league held a month-long tournament, the Challenge Cup, in a “bubble” format in Utah, where players on all teams remained in one location and were frequently tested for COVID-19. For the most part, the system worked.
The NBA, WNBA, and NHL also opted for a bubble system, and the timing of the seasons coincided with the protests against police brutality and systemic racism across the country in response to the killings of several Black men and women. Mystics guard Ariel Atkins isn’t a person of many words, but in front of an ESPN microphone on a nationally televised broadcast in August, she spoke passionately for four minutes. She explained why the Mystics had decided to sit out their game and hit pause on the WNBA season days after Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was shot seven times in the back by a White police officer.
“We’re not just basketball players,” she told ESPN’s Holly Rowe. “And if you think we are, then don’t watch us. You’re watching the wrong sport, because there’s so much more than that. We’re going to say what we need to say, and people need to hear that. And if they don’t support that, I’m fine with that. At the end of the day, I’m going to make sure that my family’s good any way that I have to do it. If basketball’s not it—God forbid—but that’s what it is. We need to understand that these moments are so much more bigger than us.”
Fellow Mystics guard Natasha Cloud had opted out of the season to focus her time and attention on racial and social justice. Wizards star Bradley Beal found his voice as an activist, as well, and did not join his team in the NBA bubble due to a shoulder injury.
Together, the duo organized a player-led march through D.C. on Juneteenth to protest police brutality and anti-Black racism.
“How does the Black community grow when lives are taken from them unjustly without any consequences? There’s no more sweeping these harsh realities under the rug, putting on Band-Aids over the scars,” Beal said that day. “It’s time we held everyone accountable. We got to call out the lawmakers, the law [enforcement] officers, the state and city reps, DAs, judges, politicians, police unions. Everybody that deems themselves the enforcer of the law has to be held accountable. Justice is demanded. Sustainable change is necessary.”
It finally happened. For years, Dan Snyder, the owner of the local NFL team, vowed to “NEVER” change his team’s racist name despite decades of pressure from Native American activists and critics. But financial pressure to drop the name from FedEx, the title sponsor of the team’s stadium, and NFL partners like Pepsi and Nike, forced Snyder to retire the logo and name of the franchise now known as the Washington Football Team.
“I want Washington football fans to understand: This is not about political correctness,” Tara Houska, a Couchiching First Nation citizen and co-founder of Not Your Mascots, told City Paper in July. “This is not about sensitivity. Native people are some of the strongest people that are in existence today. We survived multiple generations of attempted genocide. It’s about respecting our children. It’s about recognizing that racially stereotyping is harmful for kids … What matters is our children. We don’t want our kids to grow up dehumanizing other kids.”
And while the Washington Football Team has seen success on the field with new coach Ron Rivera and the return of quarterback Alex Smith, the stench of Snyder still hangs over the franchise. The Washington Post published articles detailing allegations by more than a dozen women who spoke about the sexual harassment and verbal abuse they faced while working for the team under Snyder’s ownership.
On Tuesday, the Post reported that the team settled a 2009 sexual misconduct claim against Snyder for $1.6 million. Details of the claim have not been revealed.
The Show Goes On
In a year where trauma has felt ever present, local residents have found new ways to cope.
Gyms are closed or operating at partial capacity. Contact sports like football and basketball are currently prohibited in D.C. With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country, it’s unlikely that fans will be able to see the Capitals under new coach Peter Laviolette, Russell Westbrook, who joined the Wizards after the team traded John Wall, or World Cup hero and Washington Spirit defender Kelley O’Hara, compete in person anytime soon.
Ryan Musser, who lives in Hill East, started running in March. He runs to give himself a break from work. He runs to force himself to be outside. He isn’t the only one who has turned to physical activity as a therapeutic outlet.
Canceled races haven’t deterred American University alumna Keira D’Amato, a full-time realtor and elite amateur runner, from training. If anything, it’s motivated her to do even more.
“It’s kind of sticking it to the man a little bit,” she said in July. “It’s like, OK, COVID, you have shut everything down and you really destroyed a lot of things and made this really hard on everybody, but you’re not gonna stop me … You shut down all the races. I don’t need a race. I’ll do it on the track by myself. That’s fine.”
Last month, D’Amato set an American record in the 10 mile on a course around Anacostia Park. More recently, she finished second at the Marathon Project, beating a host of pro runners. Her next goal: qualifying for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.