Sports unraveled, collided with politics, racism in 2022

Dec 21, 2022, 4:42 PM | Updated: Dec 22, 2022, 6:46 am

FILE - Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder poses for photos during an event to unveil the NFL fo...

FILE - Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder poses for photos during an event to unveil the NFL football team's new identity on Feb. 2, 2022, in Landover, Md. Hardly a day passed in 2022 when a headline running across the ticker on ESPN would have been fitting on CNN or Fox Business. The intersection between sports and real life ranged from toxic workplace environments, alleged sexual misconduct, sportswashing, cryptocurrency, transgender sports and the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The unspoken deal between sports fans and their favorite teams and players has been, in theory: Sure, there are billions of dollars being thrown around, but at the core, sports are supposed to be fun and games, a never-ending menu of two- or three-hour escapes into a land of winners and losers where nobody really gets hurt.

For all but the most starry-eyed fanatics, that worldview unraveled in 2022 — much as it did the year before, the year before that, and the year before that, and so on. A more accurate assessment might be that sports are not so much an escape from the world’s problems as simply another window into them.

Hardly a day passed in 2022 when a headline running across the ticker on ESPN would’ve been every bit as fitting on CNN or Fox Business or, in some cases, on NBC’s “Dateline.” The intersection between sports and real life ranged from toxic workplace environments, alleged sexual misconduct, sportswashing, cryptocurrency, transgender sports and the COVID-19 pandemic — plus a sprinkling of doping, geopolitics, hypocrisy and corruption.

The AP Sports Story of the Year was about a basketball player, Brittney Griner, whose plan to travel to Russia to play in the offseason ended up as a high-stakes diplomatic battle between the United States and Russia.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison for possessing a small amount of hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia. Months of tense negotiations ensued. Ultimately, Griner was released, and the sign-off for both countries’ negotiating teams came from none other than Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

Putin, who, as much as any world leader, has tried to use sports to project his country’s strength, began the year front-and-center with Chinese premier Xi Jinping, as the autocrats used the start of the Beijing Olympics to highlight their partnership on the world stage.

Shortly after those Games, Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving the global sports community to wrestle with whether Russian athletes should be able to compete in international events, sometimes head-to-head against athletes from the country under siege.

“I think it’s fairly simple,” said Sebastian Coe, the head of World Athletics, when asked in November what it would take to see a Russian in a track meet anytime soon. “Get out of Ukraine.”

As the year closed and the war remained far from a conclusion, Coe was hardly in the majority among world sports leaders.

Many of those leaders, meanwhile, had brought their athletes home safely from China, where the government shuffled all 2,800 competitors and thousands more officials and media in and out of the country for the Beijing Games without suffering a major COVID-19 outbreak.

It happened thanks to the country’s draconian, opaque testing procedures and cordoned-off Olympic venues, all of which served to tamp down any notion of dissent or free speech in a land that doesn’t view any of that kindly. The COVID restrictions helped China ultimately prove that it could pull off a major worldwide event in the midst of the pandemic — even if the festivities fell short of the global outpouring of peace and love that the Olympics so desperately wants to be.

“It’s kinda like sports prison,” Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris said.

China was hardly the only country hoping to use sports for air of legitimacy — or to whitewash its own perceived sins.

The creation of the breakaway LIV Golf tour took up virtually all the oxygen in that sport, as much for disrupting the status quo as for being bankrolled by a wealth fund backed by Saudi Arabian leaders who detractors said had blood on their hands. For a time, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi citizenship of the 9/11 terrorist attackers drowned out birdies, bogeys and Tiger Woods’ health as the biggest talking points in golf.

Later in the year, misgivings about holding soccer’s World Cup in Qatar were placed under a similar microscope. The country’s poor treatment of migrant workers and members of the LGBTQ community, to say nothing of the alleged corruption involved in awarding the tournament to a kingdom with no soccer roots, overshadowed the run-up to a tournament that nevertheless concluded with Argentina winning one of the most thrilling soccer matches ever.

While the World Cup was unfolding, the cryptocurrency world was melting down. The bankruptcy of multibillion-dollar crypto exchange firm FTX and the arrest of its owner, Sam Bankman-Fried, had sports connections everywhere. Tom Brady and Steph Curry were pitchmen for the company, and FTX’s name quickly came off the arena where the Miami Heat played.

Despite that, 2022 was the year that crypto officially became entrenched in sports, for better or worse, via sponsorships of leagues, endorsement deals by athletes and, of course, crypto-backed non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that are becoming a new status symbol of sports stars, who have, for decades, had a knack for inducing fans to buy what they buy and wear what they wear.

“It would make sense for these (crypto) companies to work with a sports team or a sports celebrity because there’s an emotional attachment that goes along with that partnership,” said Brandon Brown, who teaches sports and business at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport.

In basketball, Griner’s was hardly the only story that strayed far outside the lines. The year was filled with reports about the rot that infiltrated the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, whose owner, Robert Sarver, was pressured into selling the team after the details emerged. Employees documented years of abuse and toxic workplace culture that included frequent disrespect of women and use of racially inappropriate language.

Another owner behaving badly: Daniel Snyder of the NFL’s Washington Commanders.

Snyder found himself accused by a congressional committee of standing in the way of investigations about sexual harassment and misconduct that had allegedly been prevalent throughout the organization for two decades. Part of the investigation suggested the franchise was receiving help from the NFL itself in slowing down investigations. It’s a claim the NFL has denied, while pointing to its own outside probes into conditions that existed on Snyder’s team.

In many corners, the saga reflected poorly on a league that has long been trying to grow its female fan base. Not helping was the ongoing story of one of the league’s best quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson, who, in 2022, reached settlements with 23 women who accused him of sexual misconduct while he was getting massages. He served an 11-game suspension that ended just in time for the holidays. He has not admitted guilt.

But perhaps the single issue that underscored the inseparable bond between sports and all it touches was the furor over the future of transgender athletes.

It is among society’s most complex topics, one steeped in a mix of physiological science, common sense, human decency and, yes, politics — and one that has left different sides of the debate at seemingly intractable loggerheads.

The international swimming federation, in the wake of Penn transgender swimmer Lia Thomas’ title at the NCAA championships, was among a number of global sports entities that wrote, or updated, guidelines in 2022 in an attempt to bring clarity. So did legislatures in no fewer than 18 states across the U.S.

One goal, said Olympic swimming champion Donna de Varona, an outspoken advocate in the transgender debate, should be to find some nuance in both the debate and the policymaking.

“But nobody wants nuances,” she conceded.

Such is the bottom line in sports, the place where fans go not for shades of grey, but, rather, to see wins and losses neatly summed up in black and white.

What became clear as ever in 2022 is how far past the scoreboard we have to look to see the true outcomes of the games.


AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Ex-Packer Guion gets 1 year for domestic violence assault

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest in a domestic violence assault at his home last fall. Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh also ordered Guion on Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and complete a domestic […]

1 year ago

Joe Jarzynka...

Associated Press

Durant eager for Suns debut vs. Hornets after knee injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant has been through quite a bit during his 15-year NBA career — but joining a new team midway through the season is a new one for the 13-time All-Star. The 34-year-old Durant doesn’t seem all that worried. Durant makes his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut on Wednesday night against […]

1 year ago

FILE - Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores stands on the sideline during the second half of an N...

Associated Press

Judge: NFL coach can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK (AP) — NFL Coach Brian Flores can pursue some of his discrimination claims against the league and its teams in court rather than through arbitration, a judge ruled Wednesday. The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was issued months after lawyers for the league tried to get the lawsuit moved to […]

1 year ago

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Alex Stalock cools off in the first period during an NHL hockey game ...

Associated Press

Kane trade reinforces hard reality of Blackhawks rebuild

CHICAGO (AP) — After days of speculation, the harsh reality of the Chicago Blackhawks’ situation was reinforced by one move in a flurry of transactions ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Showtime is over, at least in Chicago, and a seemingly bright future is, well, way off in the distance. The reverberations of Chicago’s decision […]

1 year ago

FILE -  Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, wearing a protective face mas...

Associated Press

Disgraced ex-Haitian soccer president announces he’s back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s former soccer federation president whose lifetime ban from sport over sexual abuse allegations was overturned last month announced Wednesday that he is reclaiming his position. Yves Jean-Bart’s defiant announcement could lead to a standoff with FIFA, which already has appointed an emergency management committee to lead the Haitian Football Association […]

1 year ago

FILE - Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers walks off the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Associated Press

Rodgers says decision on future will come ‘soon enough’

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers says he will make a decision on his future “soon enough” as the four-time MVP quarterback ponders whether to play next season and if his future remains with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers, 39, discussed his future while speaking on an episode of the “Aubrey Marcus Podcast” that […]

1 year ago

Sports unraveled, collided with politics, racism in 2022