It's been an eventful year in the sports world.
As leagues attempted to find a new normal after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, new challenges piled up on top of well-known ones. Bombastic news broke, courageous stances were taken, and real changes came on various levels.
Here are the most controversial moments in sports in 2021.
Jack Eichel, Sabres drama
In early November, the Vegas Golden Knights finally dragged disgruntled superstar Jack Eichel out of Buffalo in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, a first-round draft pick and an additional second-round draft selection — ending a months-long standoff between the team and its former captain.
Most importantly, Eichel was finally allowed to have his preferred surgery to repair his injured neck, something that was the driving force behind the fractured relationship between team and player.
The expectation is Eichel will have disc replacement surgery very soon. Recovery time varies. Everyone hopeful he will be back on the ice in 4 months. https://t.co/PzLx7H0jpC
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) November 4, 2021
The Sabres wanted Eichel to undergo fusion surgery, but the 25-year-old forward and his representatives sought out second opinions and decided on an alternative: artificial disc replacement. With each side stuck on their prefered method to fix his ailing neck, Eichel and the team hit a stand-still before things got real messy, with Buffalo stripping its former No. 2 pick of the captaincy in September, resulting in the relationship becoming permanently damaged before the eventual trade to Vegas weeks later.
Peng Shuai’s disappearance
After accusing former Chinese Communist Party leader Zhang Gaoili of sexual assault, tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared for 18 days, prompting one of the most intense sporting crackdowns in recent history.
In a since-deleted social-media post, Peng said Zhang forced her into sex in 2018. No one saw or heard from her for over two weeks after that.
Fellow tennis players such as Novak Djokovic, Billie Jean King and Alizé Cornet spoke in Peng’s defence, launching the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai into Twitter’s trends in November.
The WTA, IOC and the White House joined in on the fray, threatening sanctions and event cancellations if the Chinese government failed to provide proof that Peng was safe.
Though an alleged call between Peng and the IOC was arranged, and a video supposedly showing her safe and sound in a Beijing restaurant was released, the WTA announced it was cancelling all events in China on Dec. 1.
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," WTA CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement. "The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation — without censorship — into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation."
China hosts a total of 11 WTA tournaments yearly.
Evander Kane's atrocious 2021
To say now-AHL forward Evander Kane has posted a dreadful year would be a massive understatement. A bankruptcy filing back in January was just the beginning of Kane's troubles, as a slew of allegations and legal troubles followed Kane throughout 2021.
Kane's estranged wife, Anna, accused him of betting on his own NHL games — something the NHL looked into before dropping the investigation amid a lack of evidence. Reports then surfaced of Sharks players lobbying management to kick Kane to the curb as he was an obviously unwelcome presence in that dressing room. Kane also faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and battery, while he claimed his estranged wife was physically abusive towards him. Kane was also mired in an abortion for pay lawsuit before being suspended by the NHL for 21 games after submitting a fake COVID-19 vaccination card.
Canadiens select Logan Mailloux in first round
Former top NHL prospect Logan Mailloux made headlines for all the wrong reasons ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft. When it was revealed the then-18-year-old was fined while playing pro hockey in Sweden for sharing a photo with his teammates showing himself and a woman engaged in a sexual act. The photo was allegedly taken without the consent of the woman, who went to local police.
Once details of the incident surfaced — and several teams said they would not select him because of it — Mailloux put out a statement "renouncing" himself from that 2021 draft, saying, “If I were to ever have the honour of being selected, I would want a fanbase to be proud to welcome me to their organization. I know it will take time for society to build back the trust that I have lost, and that’s why I think it is best that I renounce myself from the 2021 NHL Draft and ask that no one select me this upcoming weekend."
Despite a plethora of good, non-controversial options left to choose from with the 31st overall pick, now-former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin selected Mailloux anyways. Bergevin and the Habs were predictably torched relentlessly by hockey fans, media members, and even the Canadian Prime Minister for the selection before being forced into immediate damage control, while Mailloux, who was supposed to return to the OHL's London Knights this fall, was indefinitely suspended by the OHL before being reinstated this week.
Osaka pulls out of French Open
Ahead of Roland Garros, Naomi Osaka made headlines for not wanting to make headlines.
The now-24-year-old tennis star announced in May that she wouldn’t partake in any media duties during the French Open, citing concerns for her mental health. What followed was an outpouring of controversy, support, criticism and even a $15,000 fine.
Osaka withdrew from the tournament after the first round, stating she “never wanted to be a distraction” and admitting her message could have been clearer.
"I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris," her statement read.
A couple of months later, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles drew comparisons to Osaka for pulling out of some Olympic events due to mental-health concerns of her own.
Ultimately, these two elite athletes sparked up a conversation that may change the way we look at mental health in sports – a commendable outcome in and of itself.
Even without all that transpired at Roland Garros, this would have been a pretty eventful year for Osaka. The Japanese-born tennis star lit the Olympic flame in Tokyo and released her very own Netflix docuseries in 2021.
MLB’s sticky situation
As strikeout rates skyrocketed and batting averages plummeted, MLB stepped in with a foreign-substance crackdown in the middle of the 2021 regular season.
Starting June 21, the league announced, pitchers would be ejected, fined and suspended for doctoring baseballs with sticky substances that increase spin rates and induce more swings and misses.
The announcement made for polarizing discussions, mounting frustration and awkward press-conference moments.
here's gerrit cole's response when asked point blank if he has ever used spider tack, one of the sticky substances baseball is looking to crack down on pic.twitter.com/rKFOksIDoW
— . (@mroberson22) June 8, 2021
A little over a month after the rule’s implementation, Seattle Mariners pitcher Héctor Santiago became the first MLB player to receive a 10-game suspension after being ejected for using a foreign substance.
Sha’Carri Richardson left out of Olympics
One positive marijuana test was all it took for star U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson to miss out on the Tokyo Olympics.
Richardson was suspended for 30 days and had her Olympic trial win nullified after her test, but still had the chance to make it to Japan, as her suspension had already run its course by the time the relay competition started.
However, in a polarizing decision, USA Track and Field decided to leave the 21-year-old off its roster, thus ending her chance to compete for gold.
"I'm 21, I'm very young,” Richardson told Today back in July. “I have plenty of Games left in me to compete in and I have plenty of talent that backs me up, because everything I do comes from me naturally. No steroid, no anything.”
In September, the World Anti-Doping Agency announced it would review its policy on cannabis as a banned substance in 2022. By then, Richardson’s 2021 Olympic hopes had already been crushed.
Blackhawks, Brad Aldrich sexual abuse scandal
In a story that rocked the hockey world this past fall, accusations of sexual assault and abuse were brought forth against former Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich, who was with the team throughout its Stanley Cup run in 2010. It was later later revealed and confirmed that members of Chicago's upper-management group — as well as some teammates — were aware of the allegations and did nothing to act on that knowledge.
When the victim, former first-round pick Kyle Beach, revealed himself as "John Doe" in a scathing interview, he made it clear that he believes almost everyone around the team knew about the incident:
"I do believe that everybody in the locker room knew about it, because the comments were made in the locker room, they were made on the ice, they were made around in the arena, with all different people of all different backgrounds. Players, staff, media," Beach said.
Since the allegations rose to the surface a few months back, several big names who were with the Blackhawks at the time — former GM Stan Bowman an ex-head coach Joel Quenneville to name a couple — were "forced" to resign and are currently out of the NHL, but no criminal charges were ever laid despite the fact Aldrich was allowed to move on to a high school hockey team (with a reference from the Blackhawks) where he was eventually convicted of sexually assaulting a minor. Aldrich is currently a sex offender in Michigan, but has suffered no legal fallout from his abuse of Beach.
Verstappen denies Hamilton a record-breaking title
A back-and-forth Formula 1 championship battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton came to a head at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. The two drivers entered the grand prix level on points, so the stage was set for a winner-take-all showdown. Verstappen was eyeing his first title, while Hamilton was seeking a record-breaking eighth.
Hamilton took the lead on the first lap and built a commanding 11-second advantage on Lap 54 of 58. But then Canadian Nicholas Latifi crashed, bringing out a safety car. What happened next rocked the sports world, as Verstappen pitted for fresh tires, then passed Hamilton on the last-lap restart after a controversial decision from officials that allowed lapped cars between the title contenders to pass Hamilton, bringing Verstappen right on his rival's bumper for the final lap.
Gruden resigns as Raiders coach
Jon Gruden stepped down as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in October after a series of emails he sent throughout the past decade contained racist, homophobic and misogynistic language. The leaked emails were part of the investigation into the allegedly toxic culture of the Washington Football Team.
The resignation ended a disappointing return to coaching for Gruden, who signed a 10-year, $100-million contract with the Raiders in 2018.
Ben Simmons holds out
Ben Simmons shouldered a lot of the blame both internally and externally when the Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs last year, and decided in August that he was done playing for the team. With four years remaining on his contract, he demanded a trade out of Philadelphia, then sat out of training camp and practices.
When he finally did return to the team, he was thrown out of practice for refusing to participate in team drills. Star teammate Joel Embiid was unimpressed to say the least.
"At this point I don't care about that man." 🤯🤯🤯 pic.twitter.com/telIeAGsyi
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) October 19, 2021
Simmons has yet to appear in a game for the 76ers this season, and there's no end in sight to the saga. Philly president Daryl Morey says it could last four years.
COVID-19 continues to impact sports world
From players testing positive to the NHL having to temporarily pause its season and abandon Olympic participation, COVID-19 continues to play a major role in the sports world. In the face of such widespread disarray, two individual cases still managed to stand out as major individual storylines: Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers.
Irving is one of many high-profile athletes to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, and it's kept him from suiting up for the Brooklyn Nets so far in 2021-22, with New York City laws preventing him from playing in home games. With the Nets dealing with a team outbreak, they recently decided to allow their star point guard to return for home games. He wasn't actually able to do so, as he entered the NBA's health and safety protocols less than 24 hours after the team announced his return.
Rodgers tested positive for the coronavirus in November, then it became clear that he had previously bent the truth regarding his vaccination status. Over the summer, the Green Bay Packers quarterback told reporters that he had been "immunized," which rightfully led to the assumption that he was vaccinated. That was not actually the case. Rodgers appeared on a radio show in an attempt to explain himself, then pointed fingers at "the woke mob" and "cancel culture."
Super League proposal makes huge waves
The biggest sport in the world experienced a shockwave in April when 12 of the biggest soccer clubs from England, Spain and Italy attempted to establish a Super League that would essentially see the rich get richer. The announcement was met with extreme opposition from soccer fans, and UEFA quickly dropped the hammer by saying any team involved would be banned from playing in any other competition at the domestic, European or world level.
The plans to shake up the sport quickly fizzled, with the teams involved withdrawing just days after their official announcement.
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