Commentary: How Kansas City Athletes And Fans Have Responded To The Challenges Of 2020
This was going to be remembered as the year Kansas City finally got back to the Super Bowl. Despite the dark days that followed, it's important to take stock of what happened and how we've all responded — including sports fans.
On July 24, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound medical doctor and starting right guard for the Kansas City Chiefs became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season.
“I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities simply to play the sport that I love,” he wrote, explaining his decision. “If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.”
This past week, Sports Illustrated made the good doctor its "Sportsperson of the Year" — actually, one of five sports people honored as exemplars of “The Activist Athlete.”
It’s the first time the title’s been bestowed on a player who chose not to play since Sandy Koufax. But champions and changes beyond the field is the story of sports in 2020.
The year started off great for KC fans: a playoff run for the ages, a sensational Super Bowl and a parade to Union Station. But COVID-19 saw our first-in-50-years championship, and raised us a worst-in-a-century pandemic. Looking back now on those images of thousands of fans packed together downtown still gives me chills, but of a very different kind.
It was harder to be a sports fan this year — and not just because there were no games, and then when there were, it wasn’t safe to go. And not just because we lost that connective tissue when we needed it most.
This year exposed old tensions and inequalities, and our not always healthy relationship with sports.
With millions of jobs and billions in earnings lost, it makes sense that pro sports would want to get up and running. Bickering billionaire owners almost sank the shortened Major League Baseball season before it began. The NBA and NHL fared better, inside their bubbles. It’s really just a matter of resources and priorities. Pro teams have them and so their athletes are tested for COVID-19 almost daily, while most frontline nurses never are.
College athletic departments came next, preaching the importance of competition and player safety, but — first and foremost — they’re also businesses that need to turn a buck. So they trot out “amateur” football and basketball players to entertain us amid the pandemic’s most deadly surge while, from volleyball to wrestling to track and field, nearly a hundred profitless Division 1 programs are disappearing, probably for good.
These messages trickle down.
We sign our kids up for sports for the exercise and the supposed life lessons they instill: determination and teamwork, individual effort only matters for the success of the whole. But given an unprecedented chance to model shared sacrifice for the common good — to sit out one season to save lives — too many parents would rather cry, “Let Them Play.”
This is why athletes willing to step outside the game, like Duvernay-Tardif and his teammate Patrick Mahomes — another "Sportsperson of the Year" — have been the inspiring bright spots.
First of all, Mahomes is having his most insanely productive season yet, on pace again for 5,000 yards. But his most impressive stat may be the three words he spoke in a viral video aimed directly at his bosses: Black Lives Matter.
Or the six figures he spent on voting machines to help transform Arrowhead Stadium into a polling place on Election Day. It’s the most potent form of Mahomes Magic: using his exalted platform to counter social injustice and electoral discord, without concern for his brand. He knows that wearing a face mask with the word “vote” on it might annoy some fans — or it might get them to do both.
The new year will bring hope and vaccines. We will go to games again. We will cheer. We will high-five — with strangers. In the past, I’ve used this time in December to share my sports fan’s wish list — you know, things I want, like a Chiefs’ Super Bowl championship. But this year I only want one thing.
Let’s make sure that 2020 will be remembered for who and what we lost, and also what we’re learning. Not just Zoom and sourdough and needlepoint, but solidarity and sacrifice and fairness — ideals that we think are enshrined in sports, but have always depended on each one of us.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.