20 Women Who Ruled Sports in 2014
Whether or not it’s fair, it’s a fact that the multibillion-dollar sports industry is a world dominated by men. The highest paid athletes in the world are men. The overwhelming majority of franchise ownership is male, as are the executives and coaches they employ.
That’s not meant to be an indictment or even a condemnation of the status quo, though it certainly wasn’t meant to be a compliment either. It's rather a plain statement of fact regarding the world in which we live. For whatever reason, female-driven sports and leagues have yet to prove they can generate the level of interest and profits of those driven by men. That’s hard enough for women to fight back against without even getting into the unfortunate lack of respect they often contend with.
But as we all know, anything truly worth having is worth fighting for. The path for women to succeed in the sports world may be littered with obstacles, but it seems with each passing year there are even more lining up for the challenge. This year was no different, as 2014 was chock-full of female firsts and achievement in sports. Some stories are coming to a conclusion, while others are just beginning.
Here are 20 women who ruled sports in 2014.
Despite suffering an ankle injury in October that will keep her sidelined through the end of the year, U.S. women’s soccer star Alex Morgan still had a better year than any of us plebs. Having experienced so much success at such an early age—in December 2013, Morgan was the youngest player named to U.S. Soccer’s All-Time Team Best IX—the 25-year-old finally had some time in 2014 to focus on her personal life.
Late last year, Morgan announced her engagement to longtime boyfriend Servando Carrasco, who plays for MLS club Houston Dynamo, simultaneously breaking millions of hearts in the process. Her upcoming wedding has been the focus of countless reports in recent months; in September she was profiled on Internet wedding mecca Brides.com.
In November, Morgan chronicled her Miami bachelorette party on Instagram, which was then reported as news by ESPN. That’s just the level of celebrity America’s favorite soccer sweetheart has reached. Although the wedding stuff has been a fun aside during her recovery, there’s nowhere Morgan’s star shines brighter than on the pitch. Let’s hope she remains in the news through 2015—as the leader of a team that dominates the world at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
One year ago, Shelly Sterling, the wife of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, probably never could have imagined a scenario in which she'd find herself at the center of one of the biggest controversies in American sports history. But that’s exactly what happened after TMZ published incendiary private recordings of her husband making unforgivably racist remarks in a conversation with his "associate," V. Stiviano, last April.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acted swiftly and severely against Sterling, slapping him with a lifetime ban, a league-maximum fine of $2.5 million and plainly and publicly stating his intention to force the sale of the Clippers. Donald Sterling attempted to fight the sanctions and the sale, but Shelly Sterling stepped in to negotiate the $2 billion sale to ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in June.
A court battle between the estranged spouses raged on through the summer, with Shelly Sterling ultimately winning out after physicians who examined Donald Sterling in May deemed him "mentally incapacitated, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN (h/t Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Washington Post). The sale was finalized in August, but the fight isn't over yet. In November, it was reported that Shelly Sterling and her associates were seeking to recover $70,000 in legal fees from Stiviano.
Mary Kate Smith
In September, 17-year-old high school senior Mary Kate Smith was named homecoming queen at South Jones High School in Mississippi. Not a particularly newsworthy accomplishment for a pretty teenager on its own, it became so thanks to Smith's position as kicker on the school's varsity football team.
The story made international headlines, spreading rapidly via social media. Smith was called the "Queen Of the Gridiron" by NBC News two weeks before she was featured on the network's morning show, Today. Although her football career may be over, Smith's kicking career is not; she's set to play Division I soccer at the University of Southern Mississippi next fall.
Figure skater Ashley Wagner didn't medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, but she was still one of the biggest American stars of the Games. That really doesn't speak well of Team USA's performance, but that's just where we are.
The look of surprise on Wagner's face after her scores were posted during the team event rivaled that of Team USA gymnast McKayla Maroney, whose "not impressed" face became the biggest viral meme of the 2012 Olympics in London. Wagner was given the same treatment.
Following the individual competition, Wagner publicly criticized the judging at the Games, noting that she felt "gypped" with her seventh-place finish after skating two clean routines. She pointed to the scores of two Russian skaters, charging that their scores had been "unfairly inflated" by judges conspiring for the host nation.
But Wagner is not unfamiliar with controversy. The skater's presence in Sochi actually came with its fair share. In January, she was named to the team ahead of Mirai Nagasu despite finishing behind her in fourth place at the U.S. nationals.
In September, the Cincinnati Bengals re-signed defensive tackle Devon Still after he'd been cut so that his four-year-old daughter Leah would be able to seek the best treatment possible after being diagnosed with stage 4 pediatric cancer in June. In addition to continuing to employ him, the Bengals promised the proceeds from the sale of Still's jersey would be donated to cancer research. Over $1 million was raised in the first month alone.
In November, Leah tugged on the heartstrings of a nation when she made the trip to Cincinnati for the first time since her diagnosis to see her father play in person against the Browns. Her heartbreaking story was a somber reminder to a prime-time audience that some things supersede football. Though her battle with cancer is ongoing, Leah's Christmas wish, which was to visit Disney World with her father, was granted in December.
Right now, the Still family is cherishing its time together during the holidays. With their lives in limbo along with little Leah's, they will finally have some more answers when she returns to the doctor for checkups to gauge the success of her treatment.
Women's gymnastics is always one of the premier events at the Summer Olympics, but it doesn't appear on the nation's radar during the "off" years. Just because we're not paying enough attention, though, doesn't mean these ladies aren't still competing the entire year in one of the most unforgiving and physically demanding sports out there.
At the 2012 Olympics, the American women achieved instant celebrity after winning team gold in London. Just over two years removed from the Games, though, Simone Biles has supplanted every member of the Fierce Five as the best gymnast in the world, while they struggle through injuries in an attempt to get back to form ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
After building steam for three years, Biles really burst onto the scene in 2014. This year alone, she was the all-around, beam and floor champion at the World Gymnastics Championships, and the all-around, vault and floor champion at the U.S. nationals. In October, Slate called her "the best gymnast in the world," adding that "it's not even close." And it really isn't.
The 17-year-old is getting better every day, which is almost scary considering how good she already is. If she's fortunate enough to avoid major injury between now and then—a major "if" in this sport—Biles is going to absolutely own the sports world in 2016.
In 2012, then-nine-year-old Sam "Sweet Feet" Gordon from Utah became an international media darling after word got out that she was the most dominant player in the all-boys football league she played in. That year, she rushed for a league-record 1,911 yards on 232 carries, scoring 35 touchdowns along the way. Despite appearing on a Wheaties box, Gordon walked away from football the following season, opting instead to focus on soccer.
It seems, however, Sweet Feet has the gridiron in her blood. In 2014, Gordon returned to the football field, and her game wasn't the least bit affected by the one-year hiatus. This season, she averaged 13 yards per carry and is still every bit the human highlight reel she was back in 2012.
Just two seasons into her professional career, former Baylor standout Brittney Griner is already the most dominant player in the WNBA. In 2014, she led the Phoenix Mercury to a three-game championship sweep in the WNBA Finals and was subsequently named the Defensive Player of the Year.
The ride for Griner really started in 2013, when she led the Lady Bears to a 34-1 season that came up just two points shy of a national championship. Soon after, she became a hot topic of discussion nationally when the NBA's Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban publicly mulled the possibility of drafting her. Just days later she made headlines again, this time for coming out as gay.
Her love story with Glory Johnson, who plays for the Tulsa Shock, entered a new chapter this past August when Griner proposed just two months into their whirlwind romance. Though she has said she's not interested in being a "pioneer," Griner became the first openly gay athlete to be endorsed by Nike in October.
China's Li Na turned pro at tennis in 1999, beginning one of the slowest and steadiest career ascents the sports world has ever seen. She finally established herself as a force to be reckoned with at the 2011 Australian Open. Li was the tournament's ninth-seeded woman and defeated No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka, No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and took one set in the final against No. 3 Kim Clijsters, who would go on to win.
Six months later, Li won the French Open, the first Grand Slam title of her career, making history as the first player from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles championship. Bogged down by chronic knee and ankle injuries, Li struggled through long stretches over the next two years before storming back with another historic win at the 2014 Australian Open in January, though the biggest moment of her career was yet to come.
In September, Li stunned the sports world by announcing her sudden retirement from the game at the age of 32. Her decision to walk away at the peak of her professional career puts her among a very small group of largely revered athletes who have done the same. It was a decision for which Li has said she has no regrets.
Skylar Diggins was drafted out of Notre Dame at No. 3 by the WNBA's Tulsa Shock in 2013. Though she was named to the All-Rookie Team that year, her rookie season left plenty of room for improvement, something Diggins proved herself, winning the league's Most Improved Player Award in 2014.
She has proven herself a valuable commodity off the court as the first (and so far only) woman signed to Jay Z's sports management company, Roc Nation. Diggins' statuesque figure and model good looks have made her a natural on the marketing end of the business, but she cautions against dismissing her as "just another pretty face."
The fashion world may have taken notice, and Nike may have snapped her up right out of college, but Diggins is also a very formidable force on the basketball court. Anything is possible for the 24-year-old—Stack recently singled out Diggins as "the future of the WNBA."
After paying her dues for nearly seven years at the local ABC affiliate in Washington D.C., Britt McHenry finally made an unsurprising jump to ESPN last March. A former collegiate soccer player with a master's degree from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, McHenry has qualifications for the job that extend well beyond blonde hair and a pretty face, which is basically the uniform for on-air talent in Bristol.
It didn't take long for McHenry to establish herself as one of the Worldwide Leader's most likable and capable field reporters. Still based out of the nation's capital, McHenry found herself in the uncomfortable position of becoming the story back in November. Washington coach Jay Gruden publicly condemned her report that embattled quarterback Robert Griffin III was experiencing problems in the locker room as "amateurish."
One month later, TMZ Sports reported on an anonymous source from within the locker room who claimed RG3 had, in fact, lost the support of his teammates. "No one gets the hype around him anymore," the source was quoted as saying. Considering their current state of affairs and the dumpster fire that was the Redskins' season, McHenry's reporting has proven more solid than anything else in Washington these days.
Forget all that "next Erin Andrews" crap—the only thing these two have in common is their hair color. McHenry is one of the fastest rising stars at ESPN, and you can expect to see even more of her in 2015.
In the absence of teammate and best friend Alex Morgan, who has missed months of action with an injury, Team USA striker Sydney Leroux has emerged as one of the biggest stars in a game that has finally been gaining popularity at home.
Of course, not all soccer is created equal. Matches of the American men's team have been finding a home on the airwaves with increasing frequency, while those of the American women, who entered a recent tournament as the world's top-ranked team, are almost never broadcast in the U.S., something that's been an ongoing source of frustration for the women, Leroux included.
But the women have something going for them that the men by and large do not: name recognition. In addition to her contributions on the pitch, Leroux has generated headlines in recent months by speaking out about the additional risks playing on artificial turf creates for athletes and posting a steady stream of always interesting Instagram photos, which offer an unfiltered look into her private life.
Along the way, she made fans out of Kobe Bryant's two daughters and a mentor out of the Lakers legend. Leroux's relationship with Bryant is well documented—aside from her penchant for oversharing on social media, the two actually have a lot in common.
The 24-year-old's star will only continue to climb in 2015, as Leroux competes on an international stage during the FIFA Women's World Cup with Team USA, which will be looking to avenge its 2011 loss to Japan.
A three-time Olympic gold medalist, former WNBA player Dawn Staley has been the head coach of the Lady Gamecocks basketball team at the University of South Carolina since 2008. After going 29-5 last season, Staley's Gamecocks are currently ranked No. 1 in the country.
And the good news for hoops fans in the Palmetto State is that she's not going anywhere for a while. In 2013, the same year she was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, South Carolina extended Staley's contract through 2019, making her one of the highest-paid coaches in the SEC.
Her star as a coach has been rising steadily for years, with 2014 being her best year to date. And for Staley, who is just 44 years old, it's safe to say the best is yet to come.
Condoleezza Rice rose to national prominence during the second Bush administration. She served first as a national security adviser to the president and later became the first black woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state. Politics may have paid the bills for Rice throughout her career, but in a 2002 interview with The New York Times, she revealed a passion for sports, citing NFL commissioner as her "dream job."
In 2012, Rice made history again, becoming one of the first two women admitted as a member to Augusta National Golf Club. Last year, she was named one of the 13 members of the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee. Despite criticism from some citing her lack of football playing experience as an automatic nonstarter, Rice served quietly this season, which most agree was an overwhelming success to the start of the playoff era.
As if her year wasn't already impressive enough, in mid-December, she was publicly named the front-runner to replace embattled University of Texas President William Powers. UT's board has been trying to force Powers out since July, and it's only a matter of time before it happens.
MMA is a brutal and punishing sport, certainly one of the least likely to produce female superstars. Yet Ronda Rousey, a former Olympic bronze medalist in Judo, instantly became its most famous face when UFC President Dana White made her the first female to ink a deal with the company in November 2012.
Since then, Rousey's career has experienced a meteoric rise, both in and outside the Octagon. As of December 2014, she remains undefeated, the No. 1-ranked fighter in her weight class and the No. 7 pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC. Early this year, Rousey made her film debut in The Expendables 3 and will appear in Entourage (the movie) and Furious 7. Both movies are slated for a 2015 release.
December alone has been epic for Rousey, who along with Jon Jones, recently signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Reebok. She's also been generating a lot of buzz within WWE circles after speculating that her reputation would make her a natural to play the heel should her career ever take that direction.
Tennis great Serena Williams has been a woman ruling sports for more than 15 years now. It's hard to believe it looked like her career was in serious jeopardy of ending in 2011 due to various injuries and what was perceived as waning passion for the game.
And then Williams won the U.S. Open in 2012…2013…and 2014. She won two gold medals at the 2012 Olympics in London. She won at Wimbledon in 2012 and the French Open in 2013. Last year at age 31, she became the oldest female tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the world, which is where she is currently ranked.
Despite a health scare that forced her to withdraw from Wimbledon over the summer, Williams said recently that she doesn't believe she has lost a step and is only getting better with age. So far, all evidence to the affirmative.
This fall ESPN told the devastating yet inspiring story of 18-year-old Mount St. Joseph freshman Lauren Hill, who was diagnosed with fatal brain cancer 48 days after committing to the school in October 2013. Despite being given just months to live in September, Hill was determined to fulfill her lifelong dream of playing college basketball.
In November, she did just that. Hill played only 47 seconds in Mount St. Joseph's season opener, a win against Hiram, but she scored the first two points of the 2014-15 season in that brief span. Hill scored 10 points in four games before her condition worsened in December, forcing her to stop playing the game she loves. Fighting against a terminal disease, Hill has shown incredible strength and determination along the way.
Once upon a time, Michelle Wie was one of the biggest stories in golf. In 2000, she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship at the tender age of 10. In 2002, she became the youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA event, and in 2003, she became the youngest player ever to make an LPGA cut. In 2005, Wie missed the cut by just two strokes at the PGA's John Deere Classic and later that year became the "first female to qualify for an adult male USGA championship."
Shortly before her 16th birthday, Wie announced she was going pro, the only logical option for an athlete who was already earning upward of $10 million annually thanks to lucrative sponsorships with Nike and Sony. That's when early success quickly gave way to disappointment, with Wie unable to live up to sky-high expectations. But just when it seemed the world had given up on her, in 2014, she rose from the ashes like a phoenix.
In June, Wie won the U.S. Women's Open, the long-awaited first major (and second win on the year) of her suddenly surging career. For the first time in years, she's playing without injury, and her passion and confidence are slowly returning. Wie will close out the year ranked No. 6 in the world but has an eye on the future and recently said achieving the No. 1 ranking is what already has her motivated for 2015.
The Little League World Series took place over the summer, and 13-year-old pitcher Mo'ne Davis was the tournament's biggest star. The Philadelphia native didn't win a championship with the Taney Dragons, but she did make history as the first female pitcher to ever win a game there.
Having dominated the sports conversation early in the month, Davis landed the cover of Sports Illustrated and was the subject of a feature profile in the August 28 issue. Davis' game was broken down for a segment of ESPN's "Sports Science," and she was profiled for and photographed looking stunning by Teen Vogue.
The baseball season may be long over, but Davis' star shows no sign of fading. Having revealed to SI that basketball is her true passion, she made headlines in December once again when it was reported that she had been elevated to her school's high school varsity basketball team despite being in the eighth grade. The team started 2-0, and she is already being considered for a starting spot.
In October, Forbes contributor Roger Groves wrote about the positive impact Davis' skillful marketing could have for college athletes, who have long been denied permission to profit from their own likenesses by the NCAA. Though we cannot predict what will happen with the NCAA, one thing that seems certain is that the story of Mo'ne Davis has just begun.
Becky Hammon's WNBA career spanned over 15 years, and she was named an All-Star six times after going undrafted out of Colorado State. Having never been invited to try out for Team USA, in 2008, she decided to try out for the Russian national team, which is where she played basketball in the offseason. Despite the controversy that ensued, Hammon competed with the Russians at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and then again in London 2012.
Proving a propensity for going against the grain, Hammon was hired by the Spurs as an assistant coach in August, which made her the first full-time, paid female assistant in the NBA. Coach Gregg Popovich praised Hammon's "basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills" via a statement released by the team following the hire.
Recognizing Hammon as a trailblazer, espnW recently named her its "Woman of the Year" for 2014.