Sports provided countless compelling storylines throughout 2021, so you’re forgiven for forgetting some of them.
Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl. Jon Gruden resigned in disgrace. Giannis Antetokounmpo got his much-anticipated first NBA championship. Aaron Rodgers’ misdirection on his vaccination status overshadowed another MVP-caliber season, if only for a few weeks. And the Summer Olympics were contested amid a pandemic, although the bigger story ended up being the mental health of athletes, including Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.
But those are the stories most sports fans know well. Here are 12 stories – one from each month – that may be forgotten but, for better or worse, shouldn’t be.
January: ‘Bills Mafia’ shows up … again
In 2017, when the Buffalo Bills made their first postseason appearance in 17 years thanks to Andy Dalton’s late-game heroics in Week 17 against the Baltimore Ravens, Bills fans donated more than $400,000 to the then-Cincinnati Bengals quarterback’s charity.
Fast forward to 2021, and the Bills were back in the postseason, this time facing the Ravens. Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson exited with a concussion and, after the Bills’ win, the “Bills Mafia” was at it again.
The group put out a call for donations to Jackson’s preferred charity called “Blessings in a Backpack,” a child-hunger organization based in Louisville, Kentucky. By the next night, the organization had received 5,500 individual donations from Bills fans totaling nearly $150,000.
February: Super sideshow
Before Brady wrapped up his seventh championship, an unwelcome visitor halted action in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl 55. The Buccaneers already had the game in hand vs. the Kansas City Chiefs with five minutes left when 31-year-old Yuri Andrade hopped a fence on the north side of the stadium and ran onto the field. He managed to juke out a pair of security guards and sprinted the length of the field before being apprehended; he was charged with trespassing.
March: NCAA put on blast for gender inequality
Both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments provided intrigue and excitement. Yet the inequality from the NCAA in organizing the two tournaments was on full display, especially after Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince called out the institution for its embarrassing “weight room” and meals provided to female players.
Compared to the amenities afforded to the men, the actions of Prince and other key figures in the women’s game created a necessary and heightened awareness of how far the chasm really is, with some calling it “blatant sexism.”
April: Shohei Ohtani arrives
The hype had been there for the Los Angeles Angels right-hander and slugger since the team signed him before the 2018 season. Injuries stopped him from reaching his potential prior to 2021, but the native of Japan wasted little time authoring history this past season.
During his first start on the mound, a Sunday Night Baseball affair on April 4, Ohtani threw 101 mph in the top half of the first inning and clobbered a 450-foot homer in the bottom of the frame. That set the tone for his MVP campaign, which featured 46 homers, 26 stolen bases and a 3.18 ERA over 23 starts.
May: Bob Baffert under fire
For a minute, it looked like Baffert did it again. The colt he trained, Medina Spirit, won the Kentucky Derby on May 1, becoming Baffert’s seventh horse to win the run for the roses.
Eight days later, Baffert revealed Medina Spirit tested positive for the anti-inflammatory betamethasone, a banned substance. Churchill Downs suspended the trainer, Medina Spirit didn’t compete for the Triple Crown and the trainer found himself as a pariah in a sport he’s been a dominant force in for decades.
In a sad twist, the horse suffered a fatal heart attack after a workout on Dec. 6.
June: Logan Paul goes distance vs. Floyd Mayweather
Perhaps because his fellow-YouTuber-brother-turned-boxer has the bigger muscles and the violent knockouts, Logan Paul’s bout against Floyd Mayweather – yes, the undefeated former pound-for-pound No. 1 champion – has slipped out of the public consciousness recently.
It was just an exhibition, sure, but the skinny, controversial, viral sensation went toe-to-toe with Mayweather for eight rounds on June 6. Only in 2021.
July: Rachel Nichols-Maria Taylor ESPN drama
It was July 4 weekend when the New York Times published a story about the fallout within ESPN after a leaked video recorded network host Rachel Nichols‘ phone conversation, in which she commented on Maria Taylor, who is Black. Nichols said Taylor had been given the 2020 NBA Finals hosting assignment because ESPN “felt bad” about its track record on diversity and inclusion.
By the end of the month, Taylor – whose contract at the network was expiring anyway – was an employee of NBC and in Tokyo broadcasting from the Summer Olympics. Nichols has since been sidelined by ESPN.
August: Bishop Sycamore disgrace
The fake high school whose football team wound up on ESPN (thanks to a shoddy vetting process) and was blown out 58-0, as announcers raised alarms about the legitimacy of the team. Future opponents, including prominent high school teams, backed out. Pretty soon, the ruse was up.
The “coach” was fired. Bad checks being passed to fund the program were discovered. The governor of Ohio called for an investigation, which confirmed that it was indeed a scam. There are documentaries in the works.
It was a sad situation for the players involved, but the sports internet couldn’t get enough of it.
September: Justin Tucker goes long
It hasn’t been a 2021 to remember for the Detroit Lions. It took them until December to get their first win, and they can thank the Ravens kicker and his Week 3 heroics for that.
Tucker, who will go down as one of the best kickers in the game’s history, nailed a 66-yard field goal as time expired on Sept. 26 to lift the Ravens past the Lions 19-17. That broke the previous record for longest kick in NFL history of 64 yards, set by Matt Prater with the Denver Broncos in 2013.
October: Urban (Meyer) decay
Meyer’s semester-long class at Ohio State about “leadership” lasted longer than he did as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach. One of the many, many, many missteps he made along the way was not flying home with the team after a loss on Thursday Night Football and choosing to remain in Ohio.
No way he’d put himself in a compromising position in that case, right? Wrong. Someone took a cellphone video of a woman, not his wife, dancing on him at the Columbus, Ohio bar he owns. His team laughed at him when he apologized, which is a pretty decent way to sum up Urban Meyer as a NFL coach: laughingstock.
November: Henry Ruggs’ DWI tragedy
The second-year wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders and his girlfriend escaped with minor injuries. Ruggs is now facing the possibility of spending decades behind bars for vehicular homicide. A year earlier, he was the No. 12 pick in the NFL draft.
December: Deion Sanders signs a 5-star prospect
College athletics experienced a watershed moment this year with the implementation of name, image and likeness, which allowed students to finally make some money while in school. Perhaps no one is more prepared to capitalize on such a decentralized power structure in college sports than Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders.
A five-star recruit had never signed with a HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) before Sanders flipped wide receiver Travis Hunter on National Signing Day, causing the Florida State fanbase to devolve into a collective hysteria during a daylong Twitter Spaces.
Again, only in 2021.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.