The 10 Biggest Sports Stories of 2022

Russian athletes competing at the Winter Olympics. This feels like a long time ago. Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

To be a sports fan is to value consistency. The story lines that make sports fun — stories that can last our entire lives — require a basic foundation and structure we all can trust. The past two-plus years of the pandemic, combined with social unrest, unsettled things in a way that was never going to last; the sports world generally snaps back to a familiar shape at the earliest opportunity. Sure enough, after the madness of 2020 and a 2021 that featured continuous cancellations and political upheaval (remember when MLB pulled the All-Star Game out of Georgia? That seems like decades ago), 2022 felt much like every other sports year between World War II and COVID-19. There wasn’t a fan who, for better or worse, didn’t breathe a sigh of relief.

Still, the world kept intruding. The World Cup returned in thrilling fashion but was played in stadiums built with slave labor and hosted by a country that forbids homosexuality. Wimbledon had fans again but no Russian competitors. Golf welcomed back huge crowds, and Tiger Woods all but had to stave off a rival tour backed by the Saudi government. Sports tried to stick to sports this year — but it’s not always so simple.

Here, a look at the ten biggest sports stories of 2022.

10. The end of the pandemic

Yes, yes: The pandemic is not, in fact, over. But in sports, it has been for a long time. Stands were full throughout every major event — with one exception, which we’ll get to in a couple of spots. Despite various surges throughout the year, there were no major disruptions to the sporting calendar, and scenes of packed stadiums became a sign that we had returned mostly to normal. Put it this way: I rank the top-ten biggest sports stories of the year for this publication every year, and for the past two years, COVID has been the obvious, slam-dunk choice for No. 1. I am relieved to say that I’ll never have to mention it again in one of these year-end wrap-ups. Right? Right? 

9. A historic year of college football

No sport has experienced a more dramatic upheaval over the last couple of years than college football. “Name, image, and likeness” contracts have allowed players to, at last, sell their services to the highest bidder. Desperate universities sold their broadcast rights for billions of dollars (with serious “last helicopter out of Saigon” vibes), transforming the entire landscape of the sport in the process (UCLA is in the Big Ten now?). Coaches cashed in with salaries that consistently made them the highest-paid employees in their states. None of this has really affected what happens on the field yet, but there was a memorable story there too: The Georgia Bulldogs won their first national championship since 1981, to the delight of their long-suffering fans. (That still wasn’t enough to push Herschel Walker into the end zone, though.)

8. The weirdest, most forgettable Olympics since the last Olympics

This year’s Games, which you may already have forgotten about, were held under lockdown conditions in Beijing. Journalists were mostly confined to their hotel rooms, the most memorable event involved a cheating Russian teen, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine just afterward immediately overshadowed the whole thing. The pandemic Olympics, both the Winter Games this year and the delayed Summer Olympics in Japan in 2021, felt dutiful and joyless and perfunctory; no wonder they’ve been the least-watched ever. We’re a year and a half away from the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Maybe the French can bring the excitement back to an event that seems to erode a little more every couple of years.

7. Stephen Curry gets a title that’s purely his

Stephen Curry remains one of the most beloved, least controversial superstars in NBA history: You have to work really hard to hate him. But he had struggled with injuries — and watched his team fall to last place (and say good-bye to Kevin Durant) — over the last two years. You couldn’t help but wonder if time had passed him and his team by. And then the Warriors went out and won perhaps their most satisfying title of all. LeBron is the best player of his generation. But Curry is the one your kids, and their kids, will always want to be.

6. Golf learns the joys of sportswashing

For the first time since Tiger Woods won the Masters in 2019, golf was back in the national conversation — but for all the wrong reasons. LIV Golf, a rival golf tour funded by the Saudi government (LIV joiner Phil Mickelson referred to them as “scary motherfuckers”), tempted some of the PGA Tour’s biggest names with astronomical sums. LIV succeeded to such an extent that the tours declared war on each other. That fight, which dominated coverage of every major golf event from start to finish, will extend into 2023 and beyond. LIV confirmed what you probably already suspected: Most (but not all) golfers will do or say whatever you want if you give them enough money.

5. Russian athletes become pariahs on the world stage

After Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, global sports organizations like FIFA and the IOC banned Russian teams from participating in their events. But even individual Russian athletes, who have long thrived in western sports like hockey and tennis, were on the defensive. Wimbledon made the controversial decision to ban Russians (a sizable backlash has forced them to reconsider for 2023), while some marquee Russians spoke out against the war — likely at considerable personal risk — and others remained silent. With peace in Ukraine a seemingly distant prospect, expect this awkward dance to continue.

4. Aaron Judge sets a record (but not that record)

Aaron Judge did not ask for —and did not encourage — the “okay, boomer” debate about whether or not his 62 homers constitute the “real,” non-juiced home-run record. But this argument nevertheless dominated the forever culture war that is modern baseball debate. If anything, it distracted from the brilliance of Judge’s season, who hit 62 homers in a hitting environment dramatically different than those faced by Barry Bonds or Roger Maris. You can make an argument that, given the context, this was the greatest hitting season ever. Now that’s a fun debate. Unfortunately, it’s not the one we had.

3. Brittney Griner’s arrest and release

“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” WNBA star Brittney Griner wrote to President Joe Biden after being arrested, detained, and sentenced in Russia for allegedly carrying hashish oil in her bag. There was reason to think her fears were justified. That Griner, one of the five best women’s basketball players in the world (who happens to be a Black lesbian), initially inspired so little attention as she sat in Russian jail was its own fascinating story at first. Once her story finally went global, she became a flash point for those trying to drag her into the hot-take maelstrom of cable news. Griner was left alone in the middle until she was released in a prisoner trade at the end of the year. She has said she wants to play in the WNBA this season; there may be no better moment in 2023 than her first game back.

2. Serena Williams says good-bye

Roger Federer also announced his retirement in 2022, but no farewell was more dramatic and emotional than Serena’s at the U.S. Open. That Williams made it as far as she did in New York, after a tumultuous year that featured little training, served as a reminder of her preternatural talent. Even in the end, she was a warrior. But the end of her career wasn’t just about her — it was also about us. She’s been a force for so long that she’s inextricably linked to our fandom and lives. The tennis world will never be the same post-Serena. The world won’t either.

1. The craziest men’s World Cup ever

The many, many problems with Qatar and its World Cup bid meant that this was a tournament you had to watch through your fingers, hoping it didn’t cost you your soul. And we lost the great Grant Wahl, a titanic figure in American soccer over the last two decades. But the games themselves were incredible, with jaw-dropping individual performances, shocking upsets (go Morocco!), and the best World Cup final ever, a game your grandchildren will be telling their grandchildren about where the great Lionel Messi staked his claim as the greatest. The World Cup was a fitting end to this sports year: An event so fantastically entertaining that you could almost forget what was happening just outside the frame. Almost.

The 10 Biggest Sports Stories of 2022