It’s easy to name the best thing about 2021, applicable both to sports and the rest of the world: It wasn’t 2020. In any other context, this would have been considered one of the worst sports years in recent memory. But in 2020, there were widespread cancellations (including the entire NCAA tournament), a whole season with no one in the stands, and massive disruptions from every possible angle. 2021 featured a full schedule, packed stadiums of screaming fans, and a return to — well, if not normalcy, at least regularly scheduled programming. After last year: We’ll take it.
The desperate hope for 2022 is that it will look nothing like 2020 or 2021. (Omicron already has that dream off to a shaky start.) Still, the last 12 months brought with them plenty of moments we’ll remember forever — and not just for virus-related reasons.
Here are the ten biggest sports stories of 2021.
10. Giannis brings a title back to Milwaukee (and other long-suffering sports cities get relief as well). The last time the Milwaukee Bucks, a signature NBA franchise, won a championship, their best player was still named Lew Alcindor. But Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, one of the most likable superstars in all of sports, led the Bucks past the heavily hyped Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and then by Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns in the finals. The Bucks weren’t the only franchise who finally broke through this year. The Chicago Sky won their first WNBA championship, giving the city its first basketball title since the days of Michael Jordan; Baylor won its first ever men’s basketball title; and the Atlanta Braves won their first World Series since 1995. It sure beats the Patriots or Red Sox hoisting trophies every freaking year.
9. Shohei Ohtani does the impossible. Hitting a baseball is famously one of the most difficult things to do in sports. Hitting a baseball consistently and being an elite pitcher at the same time? That was thought to be pretty much impossible in today’s game. Yet somehow the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani pulled it off in 2021, mashing 40 homers and striking out 156 batters in 130 innings, easily winning the American League’s MVP award. Ohtani has been compared to Babe Ruth, but Ruth was never an All-Star hitter and pitcher at the same time. What Ohtani did was unprecedented, but perhaps not for long: Considering all the two-way players who showed up in this year’s MLB Draft, he may be pointing toward a whole new era of baseball altogether.
8. MLB flirts with labor Armageddon again. Of course, for a whole new baseball era to emerge, you need to actually play some games. And baseball might be in trouble on that front.. The league locked out its players shortly after a terrific season, and is now hunkered down for a potential 1994-esque labor battle. The ’94 fiasco, which included the cancellation of the World Series, was disastrous for the sport in ways that still reverberate, and it’s difficult to fathom how damaging another protracted work stoppage would be today. For the season to start on time, the two sides probably need to reach an agreement by early to mid-February. So far, they aren’t even talking to each other. Gulp.
7. Peng Shuai shines a sharper light on sports’ China problem. On November 2, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai posted on social media that a retired Chinese politburo member had sexually assaulted her. Then she disappeared from public view for weeks. As top players and athletes around the world expressed support for Peng, the World Tennis Association took the drastic step of shutting down all business with China, at least temporarily. She eventually resurfaced in stilted, clearly staged videos from Chinese state media, and denied that she ever claimed she was sexually assaulted in the first place, which only led to more suspicion. (The WTA didn’t buy it.) The overarching problem is that every sports league, but especially the NBA, has deep business ties with China. As the country’s human-rights abuses draw more outrage — and as its heavy-handedness encroaches more on sports themselves — there will be increasing pressure on leagues to take some sort of stand. With American business at large rethinking its relationship to China, the sports world is far from alone in its dilemma.
6. Sports try to take their foot off the political gas. 2020 was the most political year in sports history, from the George Floyd protests to the presidential election to the Georgia runoffs. There are many athlete-led organizations specifically dedicated to transforming that momentum into tangible action. But leagues themselves? After going further in on activism than they’d ever imagined in 2020, they mostly backed off in 2021. The NFL has successfully decoupled politics from its games in a way that would have felt impossible five years ago. MLB pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia felt like a political decision, but it was really a business one. Even the NBA has tried to turn the focus to on-court matters, and not just in the case of China. (The WNBA and U.S. women’s soccer have been exceptions to the “less politics” rule.) It will be fascinating to see whether leagues can mostly stay out of the fray again during the midterm year of 2022. Players said in 2020 that they’d stay involved moving forward; this year is their chance to prove it, even if leagues may not want them to.
5. College athletics upheaval. It was Brett Kavanaugh, of all people, who seemed to send the NCAA into a death spiral back in June, writing that the organization was “not above the law.” But rather than force college sports to reform, the Supreme Court essentially pushed the NCAA to abdicate all responsibilities and let college sports become the Wild West. The new “Name, Image and Likeness” law allowed players to finally earn some money while in college — though it’s coming from sponsors rather than schools — but the NCAA’s lack of oversight around the law and other issues meant that conferences and schools made 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 control than they ever had before. What happens next? As always, follow the money. (Which still won’t be going to the players.)
4. The silent Olympics. Against all odds, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo happened, a year late and with no fans in attendance. The Games were … very, very weird. It’s one thing to watch a crowdless NFL game: It looks like every other football telecast you’ve ever seen, minus the fan reaction shots. But the Olympics with no cheering were oddly bloodless; the whole thing seemed to take place on an isolated soundstage. There were still some great moments, but on the whole, it felt like an Olympics that existed just to salvage television money, which stripped it of any romance still associated with the event. The ratings were predictably the lowest ever. In a couple of months, we’ll see if the Beijing Winter Olympics, which will only allow fans from mainland China, have better luck.
3. Tom Brady is unkillable. Brady feuded with former coach Bill Belichick just enough to take his (fully inflated) ball and head to Tampa Bay, where, amazingly, he went 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 has the Buccaneers right back where they were last year: in position for a deep playoff run. What he’s doing is absolutely absurd, unprecedented, and impossible in every possible way, and all the bile you (and everybody else) spew his way doesn’t change that. He may remain in this exact spot on the list until he’s 50.
2. A focus on athlete mental health. For decades, athletes have been told that when they are hurt, they should basically “rub some dirt on it”: toughen up, fight through the pain, mind over matter. This might be the year when the Whiplash, not-my-tempo style of athlete management died once and for all. Tennis star Naomi Osaka began a long-overdue conversation about mental health when she decided to withdraw from the French Open, and Simone Biles shone a huge spotlight on the “twisties” when she pulled out of the final event of the all-around gymnastics competition at the Olympics. These were major shifts in the conversation about what it means to be an athlete, the obligations you have to yourself and to your fans, the toll high-level competition has on elite athletes, and the way fans and media have long treated the athletes who suffer that toll. That conversation may become a constant in the years to come.
1. COVID. Obviously. Obviously! The first quarter of the year was all about the tightrope of putting on events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA tournament as vaccines rolled out. The second quarter featured crowds slowly returning to the stands and everything feeling at least sort of like normal. The third quarter was about navigating Delta; the fourth quarter, ultimately the most challenging one, was about figuring out Omicron (and whether sports could set the tone for the rest of us). Unfortunately, the pandemic was the biggest story of 2020, and it’s been the biggest story of 2021. But if it’s the biggest story of 2022, something has gone terribly wrong. Again.