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OLIVER HOLT: Just like in 2020, sports stars must speak out if they are to stay relevant

It is often said that 2012 was one of the best years for British sport. 

British competitors excelled at the London Olympics and Paralympics, Europe’s golfers produced the Miracle at Medinah in the Ryder Cup, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, Chelsea won the Champions League, Andy Murray won the US Open and Rory McIlroy won the USPGA. It is hard to beat but 2020, troubled and full of pain and loss, was a year when sport was more important.

It was the year when English football grew up. Once symbolised by the Baby Bentley Brigade, it banished the idea that its players exist in a gilded echo chamber, impervious to the struggles of others, content to take the money and run. 

This was the year English football grew up, spearheaded by Manchester Utd’s Marcus Rashford

England striker received an 'Expert Panel Special award' at BBC Sports Personality of the Year

England striker received an ‘Expert Panel Special award’ at BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Sure, there were some who broke lockdown rules and were roundly condemned for it, but they were the exceptions. Their transgressions only served to underline the efforts of the majority.

And if Lewis Hamilton was a deserved winner of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award, British sport’s man of the year was Marcus Rashford, a young Manchester United footballer who came to epitomise so much that is good and kind and generous about our society at a time when we desperately needed examples like his to lift the national mood.

Rashford successfully put pressure on the Government to extend the provision of free school meals for under-privileged children during the pandemic and earned close to universal admiration for his efforts. 

At the same time, Premier League footballers, led by Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, created the #PlayersTogether scheme to channel funds from their wages to the NHS.

Premier League clubs did the same. Yes, there was a blip when some of them applied for the furlough scheme only to reconsider when they were greeted with public opprobrium, but that should not obscure the help many of them gave to their communities, either by giving space in disused stadiums to the NHS, or through donations, or by delivering meals to hospitals.

It was also a year when British football found its voice. This generation is not made up of Michael Jordan clones. 

Jordan is supposed to have said ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ as a reason for not taking a stand in a racially charged election contest but, after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, players in England and Scotland responded by deciding to take a knee before kick-off to signal their support for racial equality.

Liverpool's Jordan Henderson led the #PlayersTogether scheme to channel wages to the NHS

Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson led the #PlayersTogether scheme to channel wages to the NHS 

Even when critics sought to confuse their simple message that black lives matter with risible accusations that the players were supporting Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyites, anarchists and nihilists, the message endured. 

Earlier this month, after Millwall and Derby players had been booed at the New Den for taking the knee, footballers voted overwhelmingly to continue with the practice.

It was a year when British sportsmen and women rebelled against the idea that they should stick to playing games and keep quiet. 

Two years ago, a Fox News host told the basketball player LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ after he criticised President Trump. Thankfully, that kind of attitude doesn’t fly any more.

Perhaps most moving of all is the refusal of ex-players and their families to yield to pressure to stay silent about mounting evidence that head injuries suffered in football and rugby have led to an epidemic of dementia cases in ex-sportsmen and women in the UK that mirrors the sufferings of ex-NFL players in the States.

Ex-players, like Sportsmail's Chris Sutton (above), have spoken out about dementia in football

Ex-players, like Sportsmail’s Chris Sutton (above), have spoken out about dementia in football

Encouraged by an inspiring and deeply poignant Sportsmail campaign, family after family has come forward with distressing stories about the sufferings of ex-players. 

The pressure created by these stories and medical evidence and the emergence of a group of rugby players showing signs of early onset dementia has led to increasing pressure on the Government to act.

This was the year when British sport faced its truths and when its stars stood up for each other. 

It was the year when men like Doddie Weir and Stephen Darby and Rob Burrow detailed their struggles with motor neurone disease and when Burrow’s friend, Leeds Rhinos rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield, touched the hearts of the nation by running seven marathons in seven days for his mate and raising more than £2million for the MND Association in the process.

In a year when so many people suffered with Covid-19 or with loneliness or with economic hardship, this was not a time for players who did not care or did not want to know or who retreated behind the barriers of their gated communities and averted their eyes. 

Kevin Sinfield ran seven marathons in seven days and raised £2m for the MND Association

Kevin Sinfield ran seven marathons in seven days and raised £2m for the MND Association

Maybe once we did not want players to get involved with politics or social issues but, if sport wants to stay relevant, that stance is not tenable at a time of national crisis.

Sport will still be our escape as we search for a return to normality in 2021. There is still hope that the Euros will be played next summer and that the Olympic Games in Tokyo in August will be able to provide sport’s symbolic act of beginning life anew.

But however the year starts to look, if sport wants to remain relevant and popular in a world weary with bad news, it has to continue the work it did in 2020. 

Bring us escapism and joy most of all but when the time comes to stand up for what is right, do what you did this year and do not look the other way.

STOP RIPPING OFF FOOTBALL FANS 

There are two parts to my wishlist about what I would most like to see happen in the world of sport in 2021. The first part is obvious: the return of fans to stadiums and events.

The second part is also about fans: it would be nice if football clubs — and particularly a raft of Premier League football clubs — stopped ripping them off. 

This year has seen fans removed from the stadiums but 2,000 have returned in recent weeks

This year has seen fans removed from the stadiums but 2,000 have returned in recent weeks

Professional sport is not the same without fans. We knew that already but the pandemic has allowed us to see just how radically it changes the experience of sport for all of us, including the players. Perhaps especially the players. 

Top-level sport without fans downgrades the experience. It strips it of colour and atmosphere and passion and depth. 

The television companies have recognised that: it is why they pipe in that fan noise during commentaries so they can try to disguise that part of their product is missing.

But the majority of 2020 has seen professional football played in front of empty terraces

But the majority of 2020 has seen professional football played in front of empty terraces 

The clubs should acknowledge this. They owe the fans, not the other way round. They depend on them to make their product attractive and their prices for season tickets should start to reflect that. And if they don’t recognise it, then the fans will. 

They are what makes the product special. If the clubs keep ripping them off, they know now they have the power to make a stand.

THIS WAY MY TOP JOB OF 2020… 

My favourite job of 2020? Easy, really. 

Right at the start of the year, when the idea of the pandemic was still just a bad movie, I saw England win a Test match against South Africa at Newlands in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful sports venues anywhere in the world.

And after the game, I walked a few laps of the outfield with Stuart Broad, one of the greatest cricketers of all time, talking about his career and the ambitions he still harbours. 

Now, more than ever, it feels as if everything about that job was a precious privilege.  

Sportsmail's Oliver Holt spent the beginning of 2020 talking to Stuart Broad in Cape Town

Sportsmail’s Oliver Holt spent the beginning of 2020 talking to Stuart Broad in Cape Town

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