Sam Mewis and Megan Rapinoe during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images
At the end of 2009, the New York Times ran a “special report” on the previous ten years in sports, calling it a “decade of disillusion.” The basic notion: Sports were falling apart, with steroids and “misbehaving athletes” and Tiger Woods’s fresh Thanksgiving woes occupying the mind and a “dispiriting trend toward computerized statistical analysis of every twitch.” The paper went on to observe that “the national sporting mood is down, toward disillusionment and scandal, with some patches of joy and inspiration.” I’m no expert on “the national sporting mood,” but one has a strong suspicion that every decade ends with laments of “disillusionment and scandal.” Such matters are no more specific to this decade than they are to sports. Disillusionment and scandal are owned by no pastime or time frame: They are eternal.
But as we close up shop on the 2010s, I humbly submit that this sports decade has provided more joy than heartache. It has been a decade of historical breakthroughs, unprecedented accomplishments, vivid personalities and, perhaps most shocking, legitimate civic and political engagement among the athletes themselves — an inevitable reaction to the times, perhaps, but a long overdue one. Sports still has a way of making your diversions feel gross and morally compromised, and much more sports-world reform is needed. But on the whole, you could argue that sports has seen more progress over the last decade than most other American pursuits. Put it this way: In 2009, Megan Rapinoe didn’t tell her sponsors at Nike (or her fans) that she was a lesbian; in 2019, she’s Sports Illustrated’s Person of the Year. Sports can make you feel terrible sometimes. But in an age where sometimes it feels like everything makes you feel terrible … sports can also still make you feel good, often right when you most need them to. And that’s not nothing.
So, because it’s the end of the decade and it wouldn’t be the end of the decade without some lists, here are my picks for the top-ten sports stories of the 2010s. Some of these are specific events, some are movements, some are just vague concepts. But when I look back at the last ten years, they’re what I’ll think of first.
When the Patriots first won the Super Bowl in 2002, and the Red Sox won in 2004, there were people not from Boston who were actually happy for those teams and their fans. None of us will admit it now, but it’s true, I swear. Any memory of empathy and goodwill for the city evaporated this decade, not just because of its six collective titles, but because of how Bostonians reacted to everything. There is no lunatic like the lunatic Boston sports fan. As an example of the distorting effect they have: Tom Brady might be the signature sports personality of the decade, but all that surrounds him off the field makes it near impossible to appreciate the brilliance he displays on it. (Though Brady was right about Deflategate: That was a farce.) Boston sports fans will never be happy, and they are convinced that the world is against them and that they are the only people who matter. In that way — all outsiders are enemies, every skirmish must go nuclear — it can feel like America has turned into a nation of Boston sports fans.
I’m cheating a little bit here, because while there aren’t a ton of wider social implications to the game-winning shot of the 2016 National Championship Game between Villanova and North Carolina, that was the best game I’ve ever been to, and maybe the most amazing sports thing I’ve ever seen in person. It reminded everyone why they watch all these dumb things in the first place.
The universal consensus about PEDs in sports — specifically baseball — at the end of the last decade was that they were evil and harmful and a stain not just on our games but on the American way of life. But while you can still find people who consider PEDs a scourge on all that is right and just — these are usually older white men, for what it’s worth, and they’re usually complaining about how these athletes are so overpaid and don’t understand The Fundamentals of Sport and also they hate baseball shifts — on the whole, Americans have mostly made their peace with the fact that PEDs will never be truly eradicated from sport and that that’s … okay. When a player is busted for PEDs now, it’s not a referendum on morality: It’s just another news alert reminding you to change your fantasy team’s lineup that week. People don’t like PEDs. But no one thinks they’re the biggest story in sports anymore. Not even close. The final proof of this shift: Alex Rodriguez, sports’s most despised figure at the beginning of the decade and … baseball’s top television commentator and the FIANCÉ OF FREAKING J.LO at the end of it. Turns out: Juicing pays. No one really minds.
In 2010, the top prospect in baseball was Jason Heyward. In 2011, it was either Bryce Harper or pitcher Matt Moore. But in 2012, after a short stint in the majors the year before, Mike Trout began his first season and immediately became the best player in the sport by a wide margin. His career since then has been remarkably consistent: He just goes out every day and finds new ways to dominate a game that has vexed millions of lesser humans for more than a century. That his excellence was an efficient, almost bloodless excellence — he is the ultimate Plays the Game the Right Way guy — also spoke to baseball’s troubles marketing itself throughout the decade. It is not a good sign that one of the best five players in the history of baseball is playing right now … and it’s possible you’ve never seen him take a single at-bat.
The decade began with LeBron James’s much-derided Decision, in which he broke the heart of the city of Cleveland on a live television special that also served as a commercial for his shoe line. LeBron’s firm, unapologetic control over his own career was shocking at the time, but athletes, particularly basketball players, recognizing and asserting their own power became an overarching trend of the decade. (Kevin Durant would be the highest-profile athlete power broker, but eventually LeBron would reap the rewards himself.) Perhaps even more important: fans’ acceptance of this fact and even their support of it. There are looming labor issues for every major North American professional sports league over the next decade, and now, there will be more people siding with players than ever before. Why shouldn’t these players go where they want? Wouldn’t you want to?
Speaking of LeBron, he is a longtime advocate of collegiate athletes — though he never was one himself — being paid for their labor, and it was no surprise that he was there when California governor Gavin Newsom signed the landmark Fair Pay for Play law that could open the door for college athletes to make money off their image and, potentially, even draw a salary. (More specifically: It banned the NCAA from being able to stop them.) In a world where ESPN is paying schools billions of dollars for television packages to broadcast a mere 12 games, the idea that a scholarship is adequate payment for these athletes has become absurd. The next ten years may change everything we think about college sports. This decade started that process.
This decade brought sports’s version of the Catholic abuse scandals, with the public being similarly stunned at just how wide and far sexual abuse could go … and how well it could be hidden. The Sandusky outrage at Penn State brought down the most beloved coach in college sports and revealed how much a community would be willing to tolerate and ignore if it meant its team was winning. And the Nasser story at Michigan State and USA Gymnastics may have been even more horrifying, considering the breadth of the doctor’s abusive behavior: It was difficult to find any superstar women’s gymnasts who hadn’t been affected and who hadn’t had their concerns brushed to the side.
The most truly dominant team this decade, perhaps in any sport on the planet, was the U.S. Women’s National Team, which won two World Cups (and would have won a third had penalty kicks gone their way in 2011). But their legacy may be how truly popular they were, with games that garnered better television ratings than the NBA Finals or the World Series and titles that culminated in two trips down the Canyon of Heroes in New York. Serena Williams remained the best player in tennis — she even won a U.S. Open while pregnant — and became perhaps the biggest cultural figure in the history of women’s sports (since Billie Jean King, anyway). 180 million people watched the Women’s Cricket World Cup final. Ronda Rousey may have been the most popular fighter of the decade. And with the USWNT’s fight for equal pay amid its World Cup final run, the team merged with perhaps the signature movement of the back half of the decade. If you’re betting on a growth industry in sports over the next decade, the smart play is absolutely women’s sports. The travesty is how long it took.
Michael Jordan never actually said “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” but that nevertheless was the unofficial maxim of Derek Jeter and Tom Brady and so many superstars after him: Offend no one, say nothing of what you believe, and profit handsomely. But the age of Donald Trump and everything being politicized — and the destruction of the illusion that it could ever be any other way — pushed sports into the spotlight and led athletes to take stands that would have been unimaginable in the age of Jordan. Whether it was Rapinoe feuding with the president on the eve of the World Cup final, LeBron calling the president “U bum” on Twitter, or the increasingly loud debate on whether it was proper to visit the White House after your team wins a championship, sports could not hide from politics this decade. It never should have in the first place.
Seriously: The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It really happened.
My fellow longtime Cardinals fans have always said that the Cubs winning would augur the end of the world. On November 2, 2016, they finally did it. Six days later, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. You can’t say we didn’t warn you.