To close the year, we asked some of our contributors to give their choices for the most significant stories in world sport. Here are the events they noted from 2015 – good and bad, on-field and off, stories that held the headlines and some that you might have missed.
The best sports story this year is one that is still unfolding. While at the time of writing the Bundesliga has Bayern Munich already 5 points clear, La Liga has a familiar threesome in the top three spots, and Ligue 1 is already a done deal for PSG (17 points clear!), in the English Premiership little old Leicester City is still clinging on to top spot ahead of some of world soccer’s financial behemoths. To put this in context, two years ago Leicester gained promotion from the second tier, and last year only secured survival against relegation thanks to an unlikely last minute winning streak. In the summer Leicester spent only £20 million, while Manchester City (currently in 3rd) spent £125 million. They were one of the clear favourites to fall through the trap door this season, but instead have shocked everybody with only one loss in their first 16 games. Jamie Vardy, who spent years bumping around uncomfortably in the amateur and semi-professional leagues, set an English record by scoring in 11 consecutive games (a record for the Premier League era, dating back to the early 1990s).
Two further considerations make this an even better story. Firstly, the immensely dislikeable champions of the 2014-15 season, Chelsea, have fallen apart in spectacular style and now sit in a miserable 16th place. Nobody outside their fan base is crying, other than with laughter. Secondly, Leicester’s success is seen as emblematic of the return of the middle-ranked teams. Back in the 1970s and 80s a succession of smaller teams made a real impact (for instance, Nottingham Forest won the European Cup twice in a row). But that was thought to be consigned to the past, thanks to the way financial power is concentrated among the big clubs in the Premier League and UEFA Champions’ League era. Perhaps now, even if (or when) Leicester fall away, there will be room for smaller, well-run teams to compete with the big boys. That would be progress indeed.
–Nicholas Walton is a journalist and author of Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup was the largest single women’s sporting event in history. A whole lot of teams — some expected, some not — showed up to play a level of game we simply hadn’t seen before. For the US, it was the tournament that dreams are made of. Obviously, a huge story for this team was getting Abby Wambach the missing piece to her crown. But even bigger was that no one, ever again, will be able to dismiss soccer in America. The television ratings for the World Cup final shattered all records. From the stats to the bios to the set pieces these women created, this was without question the sports story of the year.
And if I can take a step back from being a scholar of sport for a moment, it was priceless watching my daughter obsessively watch the tournament as it unfolded throughout the early days of summer. Abby Wambach in particular gave her someone to cheer, someone to look up to, and someone who knows exactly how to bravely chart her own course and blaze her own path. My daughter took selfies with the television whenever Wambach was on. Watch women for a change, indeed.
–Alex Channon is senior lecturer in sports studies at the University of Brighton.
It may be predictable, but the story of the year has to be FIFA. Although the scandal has been building for years, nothing could top the May arrests in Zurich, just as FIFA assembled shamefully to re-elect President Sepp Blatter. More arrests and warrants followed, and Blatter and his likely successor, UEFA’s Michel Platini, were provisionally suspended. The IAAF made a late run for sports story of the year in the corruption stakes, and Oscar Pistorius came back into the frame after his conviction was upgraded on appeal from culpable homicide to murder. But the FIFA ethics committee provided an early Christmas news gift by banning Blatter and Platini for eight years. FIFA was unequivocally the story of 2015, despite the best efforts of too many sports media mavens to treat corruption, graft, and hypocrisy as little more than distracting aberrations.
–David Rowe is professor of cultural research in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.
The big story of the year was something we have all known about for quite some time. The FIFA scandal shows that the regulatory functions of big sporting governing bodies do not sit easily with their promotion of those sports through mega events. Selling the World Cup has made FIFA rich and, with a chief executive who calls himself President (as if he is as important as a Head of State), there is a lack of accountability and transparency that has institutionalised corruption. This has been very evident in the the way that Blatter has remained in post, and in the way that World Cups have been hosted. None of this is new, going back to the 1980s at least. But what is new is the way that the US legal system has been used to bring that corruption to light and indict key FIFA individuals. As the recent problems in world athletics also indicate, corruption is not limited to football. The big question for 2016 will be: who regulates the regulators?
–Jean Williams is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
Sports story of the year – it has to be corruption at the highest levels of sport with the scandals around both FIFA and IAAF. It just proves the old adage, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These institutions are amongst the most powerful in the world, yet they are totally undemocratic and implicitly designed to foster nepotism and cronyism.
–Emily Ryall is senior lecturer in philosophy of sport at the University of Gloucestershire.
The creation of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), which began this fall, was a huge moment in women’s ice hockey. Although North America already boasted a five team elite women’s league, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), the new league offered an important point of difference: it would actually pay its players. Admittedly the salaries are still low, but it is a big opportunity for North American and international women’s players to develop and compete. While the future of relations between the CWHL and NWHL remains to be seen, as does the financial sustainability of the new league, there is no question that the NWHL has quickly reshaped the landscape of elite women’s hockey in North America.
–Mark Norman teaches in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto
The University of Missouri football team’s threat to boycott a game if the University’s president did not step down. I can think of no other story in recent memory that so poignantly brought into focus the immense power of big time college sports – social, political, and, of course, economic – and the power these UNPAID athletes have to flex it.
–Travis Vogan is assistant professor of journalism and American studies at the University of Iowa.
I think the sports story of the year was the University of Missouri’s football team joining the protest by student group Concerned Student 1950. That group sought the removal of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe, for his perceived lack of leadership in the wake of racist incidents on campus. Black Mizzou football players approached Coach Gary Pinkel with their plans to support hunger striking graduate student Jonathan Butler and Concerned Student 1950, and indicated they would refuse to play in the team’s upcoming game against Brigham Young University unless Wolfe resigned. Pinkel tweeted support for his players and shared a photo indicating that the team was united. A day later, Wolfe resigned. Shortly thereafter, Pinkel announced his retirement, citing health concerns.
The football players’ controversial actions raised questions about the potential for college athletes to engage in collective bargaining. The questions continue. Last week a bill in the Missouri legislature was proposed, then withdrawn, aiming to strip college athletes of their scholarships if they refused to play for any “non-health” reasons. As a former University of Missouri professor myself, I observed widespread and public support for and admiration of Concerned Student 1950 and the football players among MU student and faculty leaders of all races and ethnicities on that campus. Most of those leaders believe the activist students and the football players’ actions will make the institution stronger and better. What this story’s impact will be on college sports at Mizzou or nationally remains to be seen.
I have a runner-up story, too. It might seem either an outlier or a no-brainer (pun definitely intended), but I would also note U. S. Soccer’s announcement in November that heading the ball will be restricted in youth soccer, with no heading for age 10 and under and limited heading in practice for those 11 to 13. This new rule affects only a fraction of the nation’s soccer players, an it certainly can’t legislate what happens on playgrounds. My 10-year-old son reports that heading the ball still happens all the time on the school field at recess. But this rule change, which arose out of a lawsuit, suggests the likelihood of further change to come in soccer and other concussion-risky sports. Changing play for the sport’s youngest players is an important step.
–Devoney Looser is professor of English at Arizona State University.
While recognizing the risk of provincial Americanism in exaggerating the importance of college football, I found the University of Missouri football team’s boycott threat enthralling. American college football reads more and more like a crystalline embodiment of how the business of big-time sports too often thrives by turning athletes into widgets and communities into window dressing. But the Missouri football players managed to expose the fragility of that arrangement by taking a strong social justice stand and disrupting the levers of power at a flagship state institution. For me, the story raised questions beyond college football about what happens when athletes start to think for themselves and about their communities. I actually hope there is more of the Missouri story still to be told – what drove these particular players in this particular community, and what lessons does that have for players and communities everywhere in the sports world? And is the seeming increase in athlete activism a blip or a trend?
–Andrew Guest is associate professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Portland.
The deciding game of this year’s American League Division Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers was tied 2-2 going into the seventh inning, when something bizarre happened. As Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin completed a routine post-pitch return throw to the mound, the ball bounced off Texas batter Shin Soo-Choo’s bat and rolled into play. Texas runner Rougned Odor was on third base and opportunistically headed for home, disregarding the fact that home plate umpire Dale Scott was waving the play dead. Confusion reigned for several long minutes after the play as the umpires conferred. Eventually, Scott’s call was overturned and the run was allowed to stand.
Although the final ruling was arguably credible within the letter of baseball’s law, it is difficult to suggest with a straight face that justice was served by allowing Odor’s run. The game was being played in Toronto, and as the umpires delivered their decision a sense of hushed bewilderment gave way to anger and indignation for almost 50,000 fans. Drink containers and other makeshift projectiles, along with a chorus of expletives and boos, cascaded down upon the field. As Michael Baumann put it in an article for Grantland, “Civilization failed us, and when civilization fails us, a civilized response just isn’t enough. It wasn’t right, or smart, to throw things, but it was the most human thing to do.”
As a result of the call, the Rangers were leading 3-2 heading into the bottom of the seventh, and the citizens of Toronto had been primed for unrest. The Blue Jays managed to get two runners on base, and then came Jose Bautista. With the look of a man preparing to commit murder, the Jays’ slugger stepped into the box and proceeded to hit the ball out of the park. But Bautista wasn’t finished. With a measured, calculated, and still somehow explosive burst of defiance, triumph, and celebration, Bautista ceremoniously tossed his bat into the air before departing to run the bases. While it was obviously the runs that secured the win, Bautista’s bat flip restored order in baseball’s moral universe. It asserted that justice is more primal than the politics and pieties we’ve built to promote it, that athletic victory must ultimately be earned rather than awarded. If it wasn’t for Bautista’s bat flip, the city of Toronto might have burned that night.
–Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels.
Mohammad Amir was what the American sportswriters call a “phenom.” He came into the Pakistan cricket side in 2009, when he was 17, and within a year his ability to swing the ball both ways at over 90 mph had made him the youngest player ever to take 50 test wickets. Lanky and shy, with flowing hair and a big smile, he seemed to have the world before him.
Then came the fall. Just a year after his debut, the News of the World splashed a story saying that three Pakistan players had made pre-arranged plays for a betting syndicate in the Lord’s test. “Please don’t let it be the kid,” said the hard-nosed ex-England captain and TV broadcaster Nasser Hussein when the story first broke. But it was. Along with Salman Butt, his captain, and Mohammad Asif, one of the senior players, Amir was found guilty of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and accept corrupt payments. He was sent to jail for six months and banned from all cricket for five years. (Butt and Asif received jail sentences of 30 and 12 months, respectively, and were banned for 10 and 7 years.)
Amir’s five years are now over. He has expressed complete remorse, and he has being bowling well in domestic cricket. In the normal course of events, you might expect that he would now be recalled to the Pakistan team. Except it’s not that simple. A section of the press have been arguing that his return will send the wrong message to young players. Even more troublingly, two of the established Pakistan players have said they won’t play in the same side as a proven gambling cheat.
By all accounts, Amir wasn’t in it for the money, but was somehow duped into thinking the gamblers would get him into trouble if he didn’t play along. He was a boy of 18, whose captain, far from protecting him, added to the pressure to transgress. He has now served a prison sentence, and been out of cricket for 5 long years. What more do his critics want?
Pakistan cricket does have a history of gambling scandals (though they are by no means alone in this among cricketing nations). One can sympathize with those who are anxious to remove any taint of corruption. But intransigence is not the way. It would be a tragedy if a life were ruined because a teenager was entrapped into a silly action that didn’t harm anyone. If you ask me, it will do far more for the name of Pakistan cricket to forgive than to exclude.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London and CUNY Graduate Center.
For me, the most interesting and memorable sports story of the year took place in late April, when the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox played what should have been an ordinary regular season game. Other than what happened on the field that afternoon – the O’s beat the Sox, 8-2 – there was nothing ordinary about it. This was the first fan-less game in Major League history. That is, the game was played, but fans were not admitted to it. Baltimore City officials and the Orioles front office determined that after the devastating civic unrest and violence that erupted in the city two nights before, public safety trumped baseball fandom. Still, the show went on.
The riots had been sparked (but not caused) by the tragic death of Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old African American man, who was arrested for the alleged possession of a switchblade on April 12. He died a week later due to severe spinal cord injuries he sustained while in police custody. The justifiable outrage and anger that many African Americans (and others) experienced – which had been simmering for years due to persistent acts of police brutality, oppression, and racism – erupted on April 27, not long after Gray’s funeral. As the Baltimore Sun put it, “Baltimore descended into chaos.” There was looting, millions of dollars in property damage, arson, and assaults on police and civilians – mostly caused by teens and young adults, all televised by the local and national news media.
Two days later, the Orioles and White Sox played in an empty ballpark. It was an odd spectacle, visually and aurally. It also raised a host of questions. What does it mean when a professional sports event – which is a cultural performance, a commodity to be sold – is played without fans/consumers? Could one imagine a similar event, perhaps a play, being staged without an audience? Considering the revenue produced by broadcasting the game on the radio and television and by streaming it on the Internet, the O’s-Sox game made me wonder: are actual fans in the stands superfluous in the twenty-first century? Have fans become mere props that just cheer and boo on cue and provide colorful background imagery? Or was the game a charade, a postmodern simulacrum, a faux contest? Can a real Major League Baseball game be played without baseball fans? Apparently so.
Nonetheless, when the game was over, Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter got it right when he said: “There wasn’t anything normal about today.”
–Daniel Nathan is chair of the Department of American Studies at Skidmore College.