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On Jan. 2, 2010, a short while before noon, on a frigid Saturday morning in North Jersey, LeBron James descended from a Cleveland Cavaliers team bus for Game 1 of 900 and counting.
The King was already The King. The reason 17,569 people would fill the since-shuttered Izod Center that afternoon. But there were no fat rings on his fingers. His Twitter account was less than a year old. His agent wasn’t Rich Paul. And the basketball he was about to play – in a win over the 3-30 New Jersey Nets, a win in which the Cavs didn’t top 25 points in a single quarter – would look unrecognizable alongside the basketball you watch today.
The sports world LeBron stepped into that morning, at the beginning of a decade that is now nearing its end, was much different than the one he inhabits 10 years later. It’s different in part because James, throughout the 2010s, changed it. But it also changed around him. It was transformed by countless people and trends, sometimes even by single events, but more often by a series of them.
It is these events, these trends, these athletes and non-athletes that we thought about to come up with the 10 most impactful sports stories of the decade. We set out in search of the reasons that today’s landscape is significantly, and in some cases irreversibly, different than in January 2010.
The stories that stuck with us, and that made our list, traverse many leagues and sports, and oftentimes transcend them. They override powerful, tragic human stories that gripped us, but that weren’t transformative. Some are very much unfinished, with chapters still to be written, consequences still to be felt. But all, in one way or another, have left imprints on the games we love.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, the 10 most impactful sports stories of the 2010s:
The data revolution
Why do NFL teams go for it on 4th down more than ever before? Why does the average NBA game feature 31 more 3-point attempts than it did nine years ago? Why did MLB players hit 2,163 more home runs this past season than they did in 2010, and strike out 8,517 more times?
Because mathematicians told them they should. And gradually, throughout the decade, they began to listen.
Many of the stories you will read about below affected societal change to the ecosystem that revolves around fields and courts. One of the decade’s biggest stories, however, was the way in which Ivy League econ majors changed the games played on them. There is no limit to what data can tell us about those games. About how to play them. About how to assess the physical freaks that participate in them. About how to build teams that win them. And over the past 10 years, an industry deeply beholden to tradition finally accepted this at scale.
The impact isn’t just theoretical; it’s noticeable, significant and crescendoing. Analytics are why the NBA has shunned mid-range jumpers; why NFL coaches think twice about punts and kicks; why batters are inching toward the “three true outcomes” mold. They’re why NFL teams are dialing up more passes on first-and-10; why MLB defenses are regularly shifting; why managers are pulling starting pitchers earlier; why soccer players rarely let loose from 35 yards out anymore.
Analytics have seeped into everything from personnel departments to players’ heads, and the products that flash off our TV screens are different as a result.
Colin Kaepernick kneels
Colin Kaepernick spent the better part of the 2010s gashing collegiate and professional defenses for 20,680 total yards and 137 touchdowns. But it was his decision to risk all of that, to kneel, to use his platform to amplify a conversation about police brutality and racial injustice that made him, undoubtedly, for better or worse, the most influential football player of the decade.
His protest became a movement, and his influence spread, both in reach and complexity. As he inspired millions, he infuriated millions. That conversation, which looped in broader concepts of free speech and patriotic symbolism, often spun out of control. Many told Kaepernick to “stick to sports.” He refused.
His message, and the uncomfortable thoughts he provoked, are the currency of his main impact. But his imperfections, and flawed articulations of that message, contributed to the distortion of it. Arguments over the meaning of the anthem and the flag obstructed it. Even President Trump got involved, his “son of a b----” comments prompting athletes across multiple sports to speak out against him. They, in turn, sparked a nationwide debate between the “shut up and dribble” camp and the “more than an athlete” one. That debate is ongoing, and other prominent athletes, such as Megan Rapinoe, have credited Kaepernick with galvanizing their activism.
The debate also highlighted ideological and racial divides in America, divides that transcend sport, but that a sports star brought to the forefront of our national dialogue. Kaepernick changed the role of the modern athlete. He changed the role of sport within society. It seems unlikely he will ever play in the NFL again. But his legacy – an impossibly complex one – will endure.
Pedophiles and the institutions that enabled them
It doesn’t quite seem right to drag Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar under the same narrative umbrella. Each is a monster in his own way. Each guilty enabler – Penn State, USA Gymnastics and Michigan State – contributed to the ruination of individual lives in its own way. But both scandals, massive in scope, raised similar questions: Who, exactly, is coaching our kids? How can we be sure there aren’t hundreds of pedophiles among them? What mechanisms are in place to protect young athletes? Are youth sports really the safe spaces they proclaim to be?
The Sandusky and Nassar cases answered that last question with an emphatic “no.” Other reports of widespread abuse have emerged in their wake. USA Gymnastics’ gross mishandling of Nassar tore apart the organization and incited reform throughout amateur sports. But the work is very, very far from over.
Perhaps the most alarming parts of both scandals were the lengths to which powerful people went to protect other powerful people at the expense of vulnerable minors. Whether the issue is sex abuse or something far less grave, those dynamics exist throughout sports, at every youth level, in every country around the world. Sandusky, Nassar and their enablers – as well as other unrelated cover-ups, like those at Baylor – opened our eyes to the problematic nature of those dynamics, and forced us to consider how we can check them going forward.
Concussions, CTE and the NFL’s response
That football players may be at increased risk of brain-trauma-related diseases is not entirely a 2010s story. Dr. Bennet Omalu first published his findings way back in 2005. Boston University’s “brain bank” opened in 2008. But this past decade, as research accelerated, “CTE” entered the popular lexicon. Prominent former NFL players, some of whom committed suicide or suffered from early-onset dementia, were diagnosed with it. And fears induced by both science and high-profile case studies began to have an impact on the sport.
Most prominently, they were the driving force behind NFL rule changes designed to make football less violent. In 2010, “defenseless player” protections began to expand. In 2011, the kickoff was moved up to kill off most returns. In 2013, most crown-of-the-helmet contact was outlawed. In 2018, helmet-first hits on QBs were banned. In 2019, all blindside blocks and hits were eliminated.
The intent was enhanced player safety. But the rules also further opened up the passing game. Smart teams, recognizing this, eschewed smashmouth football even more than they already had. Offense exploded. Today’s quarterback stats are incomparable to the previous decade’s.
Yet the sport is still inherently violent. Parents, faced with decisions over whether to let their children play football, are increasingly concerned. Youth participation rates are falling. Legislative bans on tackle football in younger age groups have been proposed. In Canada, one has been ratified.
The broad-scale impact is still limited. The sport won’t be going extinct. Long-term ramifications of brain injury-related findings are still unclear. But the advancements in science, and the volume of research, and the public’s exposure to and knowledge of football’s threats were monumental developments this past decade.
Steph Curry changes basketball
When Wardell Stephen Curry II awoke on Halloween morning in 2012, he was a zero-time NBA All-Star with glass ankles making less than $4 million a year. Later that day, he’d get a modest raise. But he couldn’t quite touch the four-year, $48 million deal Ty Lawson had signed in Denver the night before. Because the NBA was different back then. Because Curry hadn’t yet revolutionized it.
He scored five points that night. The Warriors put up 87. Across nine games, NBA players took 238 mid-range shots (16-21 feet) and just 23 deep threes (27-plus feet). Their teams averaged 94.8 points. And none of this was abnormal.
Fast forward seven years, and all of it has changed. On Oct. 30, 2019, across 11 games, NBA players took more deep threes (131) than mid-range jumpers (110). The average team point total was 113. The game, to a 2012 eye, looked almost foreign.
And no single player has been more responsible for the trend than Curry, the greatest shooter ever, now a two-time MVP with three rings and a contract that’ll pay him more in 2021-22 alone than that entire four-year extension he signed in 2012 did. He has all that because of shots like this:
His bombs-away approach was both successful and relatable. No normal human can glide like Michael Jordan. But they can launch threes from 30-35 feet. And between October 2014 and January 2019, Curry did that 94 times. Oh, and he made 45 of them, a higher percentage (47.9) than Jordan shot from mid-range in the 1991-92 playoffs (46.9).
Curry let fly anytime, anywhere, in games or with hundreds of star-struck kids watching during warmups. He inspired wannabes at every level, in every high school conference and every NBA division and every inner-city rec league across America. At his peak, he was indescribably fun. And along with increasingly data-driven approaches, he changed basketball forever.
The USWNT did more than win
It can be argued that no single team had more 2010s influence than the U.S. women’s national soccer team. But not because they won two World Cups and an Olympic gold. Rather, because of everything they stood for along the way. Because they embraced and championed and normalized queerness. Because they fought for equality of all kinds. Because they saw their success as something bigger than themselves.
For all those reasons and more, their popularity boomed, and unleashed an equal pay rallying cry, both literally and figuratively, that is reverberating throughout sports. It’s the latest in a broader battle, one that WNBA stars, the U.S. women’s hockey team and many others have been fighting as well.
We aren’t anywhere close to equal investment in women’s sports, and we likely won’t get there anytime soon. But the push is more forceful than ever before. It’s only gaining momentum. And when we look back on the success and stability of women’s soccer and basketball 30 or 40 years from now, we’ll pinpoint the 2010s as a pivotal decade.
Doping challenges the Olympic Movement
Olympic athletes have been doping for over a half-century. The reason that hasn’t been a massive, steroids-in-baseball-level scandal? The International Olympic Committee didn’t want it to be. Sure, anti-doping agencies caught the occasional cheater. Sure, the occasional medal was stripped. But testing technology wasn’t good enough, and the IOC wasn’t serious enough about policing performance-enhancing drug use. So the Games went on, unperturbed.
That, to an extent, all changed in the 2010s. Prior to 2000, 59 Olympians were disqualified – often retroactively – for positive tests. Between 2000 and 2014, a whopping 345 have been. Many of the early-2000s positives – such as, for example, Lance Armstrong’s – were found this decade. More will be.
Which brings us to Russia, the “ban,” and its impact. Moscow’s state-sponsored doping scheme juiced up and protected hundreds of athletes. It conveniently went undetected by outside authorities as Sochi prepared to host the 2014 Winter Games. But under mounting pressure thereafter, the World Anti-Doping Agency commissioned an independent investigation. The investigator, Richard McLaren, found widespread evidence of wrongdoing. WADA, essentially, plopped McLaren’s report in the IOC’s lap and told it to act.
Which it did. Sort of.
Russia, as a country and national Olympic committee, was barred from the 2018 Winter Games. But its athletes were allowed to compete under the Olympic flag. A similar ban was recently handed down for Tokyo 2020. It is more symbolic than practically effective as punishment, and has been criticized as insufficient. But sometimes symbolism is important. It’s a message as much to millions of athletes worldwide as to Russia. It feeds a cultural change that is both necessary and important, a change that, for example, emboldens swimmers to lambaste and shun suspected dopers. Peer pressure, in a way, is as effective a deterrent as any.
The fight against doping is a long, painful process that will never truly be won. But the 2010s brought the first real signs of legitimate progress in the Olympic Movement.
The rise of social media, for better and worse
At the beginning of the decade, Instagram didn’t exist. Few celebrities had their own YouTube channels. Twitter had 30 million active users, about 9 percent of what it has today.
The rise of social media is not a sports story, of course, but its impact on the sports world has been unmistakable and wide-ranging. It has allowed athletes to take control of their own narratives. It has contributed to their popularity and enabled the cultivation of personal brands. It has also changed the way sports news travels, the way it’s digested, the way teams and leagues quantify their popularity, assess it and grow it.
But social media has also proven to be dangerous. It has sparked controversies and cost athletes millions of dollars and sometimes even jobs. Just this past October, one quickly deleted tweet from Rockets GM Daryl Morey incited an international incident that touched human rights and basketball, and that may very well cost the NBA over a billion dollars by the time it’s resolved.
Social media is a wonder of the modern world. It’s also a plague. It’s been both to sports in so many ways.
Ray Rice, the video, and violent crimes in the NFL
The single most impactful sports-related video of the decade may very well have been the one published by TMZ on Sept. 8, 2014. It showed Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in an elevator. It was an incident the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens and football fans everywhere knew about, but that the vast majority of them hadn’t yet seen.
NFL players had been committing violent crimes for decades. They’d been getting suspended for them since the turn of the century. But often for only a game or two, and often without public outcry, largely because that public didn’t viscerally understand the seriousness of the actions.
Initially, the Rice incident followed this same script, with the NFL suspending him for two games. And it likely would have stayed that way had video not surfaced. When it did, bringing the violence to millions of eyes, furor and questions followed: Had the NFL seen the video during its investigation? If not, had the league pursued it doggedly enough? In general, was the NFL doing enough to ensure its players didn’t double as wife beaters or awful human beings?
Public distrust raged. The NFL’s response was to essentially develop its own robust law enforcement unit; to pursue information above and beyond police departments, largely to avoid PR nightmares. It has since investigated and suspended the likes of Tyreek Hill and Ezekiel Elliott for domestic violence incidents that did not result in criminal charges. (In Hill’s case, his suspension was eventually overturned.)
No longer does the NFL wait for the legal system to decide who can and can’t grace its fields.
Before he’d won a ring or called the President a “bum,” before he’d opened a school or kowtowed to China, before he’d played the majority of those 900-plus games, LeBron James changed the NBA with a TV show. Most people hated it. Fans burned jerseys. Dan Gilbert seethed. Even player-friendly media members felt LeBron could have handled his first run at unrestricted free agency better. Everything about The Decision ruffled feathers.
But there is something to be said for feather-ruffling. Whether LeBron intended to shake up basketball by taking his talents to South Beach in such dramatic fashion, The Decision challenged power dynamics and norms. Many felt that he’d held suitors hostage, only to break all but one of their hearts. Others, however, realized: Hang on a sec… hostage-holding … isn’t that what the NBA has been doing with players for years?
In very few other professions are employees assigned to a company and forced to stay there for half of their career if their employer desires. In the NBA, they’re told so in the name of parity; to prevent the superteam; to appease incompetent franchises; to give all 30 a fair shot. LeBron, in 2010, took control of his own future. Emboldened by the intentionally public nature of his announcement, other stars have since followed his lead.
The NBA, as a result, has become a year-round league because free agency no longer begins and ends when contracts expire. LeBron has changed teams twice more, but the impact is less on him, more on others. Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis have maneuvered their ways out of bad situations. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George orchestrated a partnership in LA ... one year after George had signed for four years in Oklahoma City. They can do this because LeBron upended the status quo, normalized the superteam, and introduced a new era of player power in team sports.
There were, of course, many impactful stories considered but excluded above. Among them:
Female coaches breaking into men’s sports
The FBI takes on FIFA
The FBI takes on college basketball
College athletes take on amateurism
The first openly gay athletes in men’s pro sports
The death of the BCS
The proliferation of instant replay
The NBA and China
And if we missed something, we’re sure you’ll tell us.
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