The 10 biggest sports stories of 2021
Babe Ruth never did what Ohtani did.
Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images
It’s easy to name the best thing about 2021, applicable to both sport and the rest of the world: it wasn’t 2020. In any other context, it would have been considered one of the worst sporting years of recent memory. But in 2020, there have been widespread cancellations (including the entire NCAA tournament), an entire season with no one in the stands, and massive disruption from every possible angle. 2021 featured a full schedule, stadiums packed with screaming fans, and a return to – well, if not normal, at least regular lineup. After last year: We will take it.
The desperate hope for 2022 is that it will look nothing like 2020 Where 2021. (Omicron has already started this dream with difficulty.) Yet the past 12 months have brought with them many moments that we will remember forever – and not just for reasons related to the virus.
Here are the ten biggest sports stories of 2021.
10. Giannis takes a title back to Milwaukee (and other long-suffering sports towns are relieved as well). The last time the Milwaukee Bucks, an iconic NBA franchise, won a championship, their top player was still called Lew Alcindor. But Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, one of the nicest superstars in all sports, led the Bucks past the much-publicized Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns in final. The Bucks weren’t the only franchise to finally break through this year. The Chicago Sky won its first WNBA championship, giving the city its first basketball title since the days of Michael Jordan; Baylor won his first-ever men’s basketball title; and the Atlanta Braves have won their first World Series since 1995. It is sure to beat the Patriots or Red Sox trophies every scary year.
9. Shohei Ohtani does the impossible. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in sports. Hitting a baseball regularly and being an elite pitcher at the same time? We thought it was just about impossible in today’s game. Still, one way or another, the Angels Shohei Ohtani did it in 2021, crushing 40 home runs and knocking out 156 batters in 130 innings, easily winning the American League MVP award. Ohtani has been compared to Babe Ruth, but Ruth has never been both an All-Star hitter and pitcher. What Ohtani did was unprecedented, but maybe not for long: Considering all the two-way players who showed up in this year’s MLB Draft, it could point to a whole new era of baseball. .
8. MLB flirts with Armageddon work again. Of course, for a whole new era of baseball to emerge, there are certain games that you actually need to play. And baseball could be struggling on that front. The league put its players on lockdown shortly after a terrific season, and are now squatting for a potential 1994 working battle. The fiasco of 94, which included the cancellation of the World Series, has been disastrous for the sport in a way that still reverberates, and it’s hard to understand how damaging another prolonged work stoppage would be today. To get the season off to a good start, the two sides will likely have to come to an agreement by mid-February. At the moment, they are not even speaking to each other. Sip.
7. Peng Shuai highlights the problem of sport in China. On November 2, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted on social media that a retired member of the Chinese political bureau had sexually assaulted her. Then she disappeared from public view for weeks. While top players and athletes around the world have expressed their support for Peng, the World Tennis Association has taken the drastic step of shutting down all business with China, at least temporarily. She eventually resurfaced in staid and clearly staged videos from Chinese state media, and denied ever claiming to have been sexually assaulted in the first place, which only heightened suspicion. (The WTA didn’t buy it.) The big problem is that every sports league, but especially the NBA, has strong commercial ties with China. As human rights abuses in the country spark more outrage – and its brutality encroaches more on sports themselves – leagues will be increasingly pressed to take a stand. As U.S. businesses as a whole rethink their relationship with China, the sports world is far from alone in this dilemma.
6. Sport tries to gain a foothold on political gas. 2020 has been the most political year in sports history, from the protests of George Floyd to the presidential election to Georgia’s second round. There are many athlete-led organizations dedicated specifically to turning that momentum into action. But the leagues themselves? After going deeper into activism than they ever imagined in 2020, they mostly retreated in 2021. The NFL has managed to decouple politics from its games in ways that would have seemed impossible a while ago. five years. Removing MLB from the Georgia All-Star Game sounded like a political decision, but it was truly a business decision. Even the NBA has tried to focus on business on the pitch, and not just in the case of China. (The WNBA and American women’s football have been exceptions to the “less politics” rule.) It will be fascinating to see if the leagues can stay out of the fray again during the midterm year. of 2022. Players have said in 2020 that they will stay engaged to move forward; this year is their chance to prove it, even if the leagues don’t want to.
5. Upheaval in university athletics. It was Brett Kavanaugh, of all people, who appeared to send the NCAA into a death spiral in June, writing that the organization was “not above the law.” But rather than forcing college sports reform, the Supreme Court essentially pushed the NCAA to abdicate all responsibility and let college sports become the Wild West. The new law “Name, Image and Likeness” allowed players to finally win some money in college – though it came from sponsors rather than schools – but the NCAA’s lack of oversight around the law and other issues meant conferences and schools were making their own rules. Next thing you knew Oklahoma and Texas were in the SEC, coaches were making $ 15 million a year, and college sports felt more out of hand than it had ever been before. What happens next? As always, follow the money. (Which still won’t suit players.)
4. The silent Olympic Games. Against all odds, the Tokyo Summer Olympics were held, a year late and without fans. The Games were… very, very weird. It’s one thing to watch an NFL game without a crowd: it looks like every other football TV show you’ve ever seen, minus the fan reaction shots. But the Olympics without cheers were strangely bloodless; it all seemed to take place on an isolated soundstage. There were still some great moments, but overall it felt like an Olympics that only existed to grab TV money, which stripped him of any romance still associated with the event. The ratings were, as you might expect, the lowest on record. In a few months, we’ll see if the Beijing Winter Olympics, which will only allow fans from mainland China, will have better luck.
3. Tom Brady is impossible to kill. Brady had an argument with former coach Bill Belichick just enough to grab his (fully inflated) ball and make it to Tampa Bay, where, surprisingly, he stepped out and won his seventh Super Bowl at the age of 43. . Brady is now the fourth oldest non-Kicker NFL player ever, and he’s got the Buccaneers back to where they were last year: in position for a deep playoff run. What he’s doing is absolutely absurd, unprecedented, and impossible in every way possible, and all the bile you (and everyone) spit out in his way doesn’t change that. He can stay at that exact spot on the list until he turns 50.
2. A focus on the mental health of athletes. For decades, athletes have been told that when injured they should essentially “rub a little dirt on it”: toughen up, fight pain, mind over matter. This may be the year the Whiplash, The management style of not at my pace athletes is dead once and for all. Tennis star Naomi Osaka struck up a long-awaited conversation about mental health when she decided to withdraw from the French Open, and Simone Biles shone the spotlight on the “twisties” when she stepped down. withdrawn from the final event of the general gymnastics competition. at the Olympic games. These were major changes in the conversation about what it means to be an athlete, the obligations you have to yourself and your fans, the record of high performance competitions on elite athletes and how. fans and the media have long treated athletes who bear this toll. This conversation could become a constant in the years to come.
1. COVID. Obviously. Obviously! The first quarter of the year was devoted to the tightrope of hosting events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament as the vaccines rolled out. The second quarter saw the crowd slowly come back into the stands and everything felt at least business as usual. The third quarter concerned navigation on Delta; the fourth quarter, ultimately the toughest, was figuring out Omicron (and if sport could set the tone for the rest of us). Sadly, the pandemic was the biggest story of 2020, and it was the biggest story of 2021. But if it’s the biggest story of 2022, something has gone terribly wrong. Again.