2021 was the year we returned to stadiums, cheering both familiar and new champions. The real world once again intruded on sports, as COVID carved a path right through the center of every team and league. But sports also helped open doors and eyes in the real world, bringing the challenges and necessities of mental health into the spotlight.
With the help of the Manning brothers, we watched sports in different ways, and with the explosion of legalized sports gambling, we made a few bucks off sports, too. We watched as sports like the WNBA and Formula 1 enjoyed exponential growth, and saw old familiar names like Phil Mickelson, Bill Belichick and the Atlanta Braves step back into the spotlight.
We sighed with disappointment as labor disputes once again returned to baseball, and we were infuriated over abuse scandals in organizations including the National Women’s Soccer League. We watched as fans returned to stadiums and arenas, bringing energy to games … but also bringing a special brand of quarantine-induced idiocy, with every week bringing a new phone video of fans confronting athletes or each other.
Like so much of the rest of 2021, sports were complex, thrilling, frustrating and exhilarating. But even as the pandemic kept its hold on the world, sports returned to something approaching normalcy. Even when the world’s turned sideways, you can still count on Alabama and Tom Brady winning. That’s something, right?
10. The rise of Giannis
If the 1990s were the years Jordan reigned over the NBA, the 2000s were Kobe’s, and the 2010s were LeBron’s, then the 2020s are already shaping up to be the decade of Giannis. Milwaukee’s do-everything superstar put it all together in 2021, leading the Bucks to the NBA championship while establishing himself as the NBA’s social media superstar. Whether he’s thundering down dunks on the opposition, handing over shirts and shoes to young fans or exulting in the discovery of Oreos dipped in milk, Antetokounmpo is the complete superstar package for the next decade.
9. A Messi exodus
As big a star as Giannis is within the NBA, he, like most other American superstars, is but a tiny fleck compared to the supernovas of soccer. Lionel Messi, one of the most famous human beings on the planet, upended the rooting interests of millions of fans when he left Barca to sign with Paris-St. Germain. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, one of the few billionaire athletes, will play in PSG red, white and blue for at least two years, and the PSG faithful – as well as the team’s Qatari financial backers – hope Messi will at last deliver a Champions League trophy to Paris.
8. The WFT/Gruden scandal
Consequences came at last in the ongoing workplace scandal involving the Washington Football Team … but, true to the entire story, the consequences landed on the head of someone not even closely connected to the team. Jon Gruden, head coach of the Raiders and brother of former WFT coach Jay Gruden, got caught up in a net sweeping through more than 600,000 Washington emails. Gruden’s racist and homophobic emails lost him his 10-year Las Vegas deal … and to date, he’s still the only casualty of the league’s investigation into the WFT’s workplace practices.
7. College football drama
In 2021, college football shed the last of its pretensions toward being an endeavor in any way beholden to academics, and sailed full speed into the waters of pure profit. Players secured the right to profit off their own Name, Image and Likeness; coaches, meanwhile, saw that profit and leaped after astounding salaries. Oklahoma and Texas rocked the entire college football landscape by announcing a plan to move to the SEC. Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly rocked the coaching carousel by bolting from playoff-level jobs to other, more lucrative and even higher-profile gigs.Oh, and Alabama ended the year No. 1. Some things never change.
6. Vax requirements vs. star athletes
Alpha-dog athletes don’t much like being told what to do, whether it’s by coaches, front offices, fans, or a virus that’s ravaged the entire planet. Even as the vaccine’s efficacy curbed the pandemic’s worst outcomes and restored some sense of normalcy to much of American life, many star athletes resisted taking it. Citing a variety of reasons that ranged from thought-provoking to spurious to flat-out wrong, a small minority of athletes dodged the vaccine restrictions imposed by their leagues. Some were deceptive (Aaron Rodgers), some forged their way out of their obligations (Antonio Brown) and some just took their sneakers and went home (Kyrie Irving). And everyone had nice, reasonable, measured conversations about it, of course.
5. Shohei Otani upends baseball
Remember when baseball was fun? In the last couple decades, America’s national pastime has devolved into a haves-and-have-nots cycle of strikeouts and analytics. Into that grim mire strode Shohei Otani, a man with a rocket arm and a redwood bat, wreaking havoc both on the mound and at the plate like no one since Babe Ruth. Naturally, this being baseball, Ohtani was stuck on the hapless Angels, who stink even despite having the other Best Player In Baseball in Mike Trout. But if ever there was a need for an entire channel following only one player, Ohtani is it.
4. Deshaun Watson allegations rock the NFL
One of the most talented and promising young quarterbacks in the NFL, Deshaun Watson entered the 2021 season disgruntled with the direction of his team, the Houston Texans, and demanded a trade. But before the Texans could arrange a trade, allegations of sexual abuse – 22 in all – irrevocably changed the trajectory of Watson’s career. Watson denied the charges of multiple massage therapists who claimed he harassed them, but the Texans chose to put Watson on ice rather than play him. The cases won’t advance until 2022, but Watson’s absence from the field affected multiple teams, while the accusers failed to get their day in court.
3. Simone Biles withdraws from Olympic events
Coming into the COVID-delayed Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles stood poised to be the United States’ breakout star. The top gymnast on the world’s top gymnastics team, Biles appeared set up for gold and acclaim. But in the midst of her first event, Biles suddenly and unexpectedly withdrew, citing mental health concerns. Her decision, coming literally with the world’s eyes upon her, helped spur a national discussion of the value of mental as well as physical health.
2. Tiger Woods’ wreck
The news flashed across screens the morning of Feb. 23, with few initial details: Tiger Woods involved in traffic accident. He’d been en route to a local golf course, filming a reality TV golf instruction show, and his car left the road doing nearly twice the speed limit on a notoriously curvy residential street. Officers on the scene indicated that Woods’ survival was initially a question mark, and his legs were so mangled that amputation was apparently a possibility. Woods began a months-long rehab regimen out of the public eye, and made a miraculous return to the golf course earlier this month alongside son Charlie at a family tournament. Woods has said he’ll never play full-time golf again, but his willpower remains unmatched.
1. Tom Brady’s Super Bowl victory
If football’s a team game, how do you explain Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl win? The Buccaneers hadn’t won more than 10 games in a season since 2005, hadn’t even reached the playoffs since 2007, and then they add Tom Brady and, boom, Super Bowl champions. They didn’t luck into this win, either; Brady took them through Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. In Super Bowl LV, Brady’s Bucs hung 31 points on heavily favored Kansas City while keeping Mahomes out of the end zone entirely. Why’s this the No. 1 sports story of the year? Because somehow, the greatest ever managed to raise the bar even higher. There are stars, there are legends, and then there’s Tom Brady, out here setting marks no one’s ever going to top.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.