Whether fans realize it or not, sports have always been political. Still, the cross-section between sports and issues of race, gender, sexuality and class may never have been more apparent than it was in 2014.
This past year saw the first openly gay NFL player make his debut. It also marked the end of one of the NBA’s longest running ownerships – that of Donald Sterling – due to an ugly racism scandal.
Still, no story shaped perceptions of sports in 2014 more than the domestic violence controversies in the NFL. The league’s embattled commissioner Roger Goodell may have survived initial calls for his resignation, but his leadership remains in question. Even President Barack Obama, an unabashed football fan, has said the NFL is an “old boy’s network” in need of real reform.
It was also a year of feel-good stories: From the impressive showing of the U.S. at the World Cup in Brazil to little league baseball phenom Mo’ne Davis, who became an inspiration to girls everywhere. But at the end of the day, it was the scandals that scored the most headlines and the outspokeness of the athletes themselves that may have had the most impact.
As the nation prepares for the inevitable Super Bowl fever of the new year, here’s a look back at the top five stories that dominated the conversation among the most politically savvy sports fans.
1. Domestic violence in the NFL. In February, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on camera knocking out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City elevator. Initially, the public was only privy to images of Rice dragging Palmer out the elevator, but the outrage when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for just two regular season games was palpable. That initial outcry drew national attention when the full video of Rice’s assault became public in September. The Ravens quickly cut Rice and his suspension was made indefinite by Goodell. But the firestorm didn’t end there.
The league’s poor handling of domestic violence and sexual assaults linked to its players drew more scrutiny than ever before. And despite Goodell’s efforts to control the damage, a steady stream of player arrests and charges seemed to undermine him at every turn. For instance, star running back Adrian Peterson was sidelined for the season after striking his 4-year-old son with a tree branch. And while Peterson’s attempt to be reinstated has been rejected, an appeals court overturned the suspension of Rice, meaning he could play for any NFL team willing to sign him.
In December, Goodell revealed the league’s new personal conduct policies which codified a prior pledge to levy a six-game punishment without pay for any domestic violence infraction and called for creation of a designated league disciplinary officer. Despite the months of bad press, the NFL has never been more profitable or popular, and some members of Congress have even argued that the league should relinquish its tax exempt status to donate proceeds to victims as an act of good faith.
2. Donald Sterling. The 80-year-old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers became a household name during the spring and summer when surreptitiously recorded phone conversations between him and his alleged girlfriend, V. Stiviano, revealed his deep-seated prejudices against his team’s African-American players and fans.
Basketball fans and the public-at-large were appalled to hear Sterling pleading with Stiviano not to bring black people to Clippers games. As far as his team’s players were concerned, Sterling said, “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?”
The embattled owner didn’t do himself any favors by impugning NBA legend Magic Johnson both on tape, and later in front of the cameras. When Johnson, like numerous players of the past and present, condemned Sterling, the billionaire said, “What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he goes and catches HIV. Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself.”
Unfortunately for Sterling, the NBA thought he was the one who should be ashamed, and the league’s new commissioner Adam Silver acted swiftly once he confirmed that the voice on the leaked audiotapes was indeed the Clippers owner. Sterling was banned from the NBA for life. After a long prolonged battle, he finally sold his ownership stake in the team.
During the scandal, Clippers stars actively showed their disdain for Sterling, discarding their Clippers warm-up jerseys in the center of the court as an act of protest. Later, in a column written for Derek Jeter’s Player Tribune website, Clippers forward Blake Griffin joked, “For people to ever think we were playing for Donald Sterling is comical. It wasn’t like before the tape came out, we were putting our hands in before every game and saying, ‘Okay guys, let’s go out and win one for Donald!’”
3. Coming out in the big leagues. Michael Sam was not the first openly gay athlete to play in major professional sport; rather, retired Brooklyn Nets basketball player Jason Collins earned that distinction in 2012. Still, Sam’s breakthrough in the NFL was historic and extremely significant since the NFL long ago eclipsed the NBA and Major League Baseball as American’s favorite sport.
The heavily lauded defensive end from the University of Missouri was selected in the late rounds of the 2014 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams amid heavy media coverage and skepticism that he might not be given the chance to play pro-football at all. Although he never advanced past the team’s practice squad, his jersey rapidly became one of the best sellers in the league.
Part of what made Sam’s entry in the NFL so significant was how relatively uncontroversial it was. With the exception of an erroneous ESPN story claimed that his fellow players feared showering with him, Sam’s arrival was met largely with support and praise on-and-off the field. And while Sam may have shied away from the “gay Jackie Robinson” label, he understood that served as inspiration to many ostracized members of the LGBT community.
“It’s OK to be who you are, whether you’re gay, straight, black, or white. It’s OK to be comfortable in your own skin,” he told his fans in May.
Sam’s NFL career appears to have been short lived. The Rams, already stacked on defense, cut him in August. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad after that but his tenure there ended prematurely too.
4. The war over the Redskins. Native American groups have been protesting the Washington Redskins’ team name for years but their fight really started to gain traction in 2014, as several influential progressive lawmakers rallied to their cause.
Conservatives like former NFL coach Mike Ditka and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin quickly rushed to defend the controversial team name. And one GOP candidate even campaigned on the issue.
Still, despite team owner Dan Snyder’s attempts to claim the name is not a slur but a tribute to Native Americans, the U.S. patent office stripped them of their trademark in June and the FCC is considering banning the use of the word during NFL broadcasts.
“The R-word is a dictionary defined racial slur, which likely explains why avowed segregationist George Preston Marshall decided to use the term as the team’s name. Continuing an infamous segregationist’s legacy by promoting such a slur is not an honor, as Mr. Snyder and Mr. Goodell claim. It is a malicious insult,” Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Nation, said in a May.
5. Athletes’ silent activism. In the wake of activist protests around the country following the deaths of unarmed African-Americans: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and John Crawford III, black sports stars found their own unique ways to express their dismay.
The St. Louis Rams got the ball rolling when five members of the team entered a regular season game replicated the famous “hands up, don’t shoot” pose popularized by protesters showing solidarity with Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown supporters believe he had his hands up in surrender when he was killed by police, although authorities dispute that claim and grand jury chose not to indict the police officer who fatally wounded him.
Meanwhile, in December, LeBron James and a host of other NBA stars were seen donning “I can’t breathe” t-shirts in a tribute to Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after being put in an apparent chokehold by New York City police officers. A cell phone video of the incident showed that Garner was being retained for selling unregistered cigarettes. As officers held him down he can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times before dying.
Most recently, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins showed his support for both Rice and Crawford III – local black youths killed by police for holding toy guns which were mistaken for the real thing – by wearing a t-shirt in their honor. Although Cleveland police dismissed his homage as “pathetic,” Hawkins told reporters, “A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.”