2022 has been a jam-packed year and as it draws to a close, we are taking a look back at some of the biggest news in the sports industry.
Jumping right into things, few would argue there was a bigger headline than the GOAT Serena Williams retiring. Aside from Serena hanging up her tennis racket the only way she knew how — on her own terms — Americans welcomed Brittney Griner home after the WNBA star spent nearly 10 months in Russian custody, Brian Flores took on the NFL with a racial discrimination lawsuit, and much more.
Read our five most critical sports news moments of the year below.
Serena Williams Retires
The U.S. Open was repurposed as the Serena Williams Goodbye Tournament. Greatness personified oozed from every pore as she took the court. From the Swarovski crystals sprinkled throughout her hair to the custom NikeCourt Flare 2s emblazoned with hundreds of hand-set diamonds, we were all tuned in to the most glorious. Thousands of cameras flickered to capture the historic moment. Serena went on to win that first match, then the second. She finally bowed out in the third round against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanović, ending a career for the history books. Match coverage was peppered with personal messages from some of the most influential people in the world, highlighting the impact Serena has had on and off the court. Because of her, there’s a new class of Black female tennis superstars equipped with what she didn’t have — a blueprint. She walked so Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, and Coco Gauff could run; and please believe, they are sprinting toward great legacies of their own.
Hanging up the racket doesn’t mean that Serena’s contributions to the world just… stop. After all, she changed the game with her blockbuster apparel deals with Nike; her own designer label, Aneres; and her handbag and jewelry line, Signature Statement. In addition to her social justice activism, philanthropic pursuits, and entertainment ventures, the 23-time Grand Slam winner also has her hand in professional sports ownership. In 2009, she and her sister Venus Williams became the first Black women to hold any amount of ownership in an NFL franchise when they purchased a stake in the Miami Dolphins. Since then, she and daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian became part of the nearly all-women investors group that owns the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City franchise.
As Serena herself stated in the September issue of Vogue, she is “evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important” to her. Rest assured that whatever her next moves are, she will excel in them.
Brittney Griner Freed After Nearly 10 Months in Russian Custody
Months before Serena’s retirement, another titan in her respective sport was making headlines. In February, WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia when police said that they found cannabis oil in her luggage. The next few months were full of uncertainty and confusion as many worked to bring her back to U.S. soil. The matter of publicly speaking out possibly deterring the president’s efforts to get Brittney released became a topic of debate. It’s not like she didn’t have some strong voices advocating for her, however. LeBron James sent the following tweet on behalf of his company Uninterrupted on June 5:
“For over 100 days, BG has faced inhumane conditions in a Russian prison and has been denied communications with her family and loved ones. As a decorated Olympian and member of an elite global sports community, BG’s detention must be resolved out of respect for the sanctity of all sport and for all Americans traveling internationally.”
There were demands for Joe Biden’s administration to do something — anything — and those demands were the loudest from Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner. The “Secure Brittney Griner’s Swift and Safe Return to the U.S.” petition garnered over 405,000 signatures. Communication issues left Brittney’s family and friends without access to her for extended periods of time and the outlook started to seem pretty grim. The Olympic gold medalist even penned a handwritten letter to Biden detailing her fears of not being able to return home and pleaded with the commander in chief to not forget her. The outlook appeared even more grim when the case finally went to trial in August, and she was sentenced to nine years in prison over less than an ounce of cannabis oil. Although the two-time WNBA scoring champion was prescribed cannabis for her inflamed knees and ankles, the jury was not swayed. Still, she was adamant that the oil in her luggage was an oversight when packing for her season with the UMMC Ekaterinburg, as Brittney spent every WNBA offseason since 2014 playing in Russia.
After her appeal was denied in October, neither Brittney nor her team gave up. She was ultimately able to be at home with her family for the holidays after a prisoner swap at the beginning of December. The swap involved arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death.” Her return was marred by those who felt ex-marine Paul Whelan was more deserving and that the swap wasn’t equal by any standards. Whelan has been detained in Russia since 2018 on charges of espionage. The White House said they were working on swapping both BG and Whelan for Bout since the summer, but Russia would not budge.
Sydney McLaughlin on Fire
It was a huge year for women in sports and Sydney McLaughlin was a force to be reckoned with. The 23-year-old set four senior world records over 13 months. She followed up her 2020 Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles with a world title during the summer, smashing her own record in the process. After becoming the first woman to break the 52-second barrier in 2021, she became the first woman under 51 seconds this year with a dominating 50.68 performance in Eugene at the world championships. The next best all-time performance in the world is nearly a second slower; talk about commanding an event. The next thing on everyone’s mind is: Just how fast can McLaughlin go? Whether she will continue to lower her own marks or move on to another event to challenge herself remains to be seen.
Off the track, the two-time Olympic gold medalist added more hardware when she married Andre Levrone, Jr., a former NFL wide receiver. A devout Christian, McLaughlin only spent one year at the collegiate level competing for the Kentucky Wildcats. During that short period, she set the world junior indoor 400-meter record of 50.36 and broke the collegiate and NCAA record in the 400-meter hurdles, running 52.75 in her first and only SEC outdoor championships appearance. In a sport that’s often under the radar during non-Olympic years, she’s forging a path and carrying the torch that Allyson Felix – the most decorated female Olympic track and field athlete in the world – passed on with her retirement this past summer.
Deion Sanders Leaves Jackson State University
After shifting the way mainstream media views HBCU athletics on a seismic level, Deion Sanders left his head coaching job at Jackson State to take the same position at Colorado after two seasons and back-to-back Celebration Bowl appearances. Critics of the move accused “Coach Prime” of using HBCU culture to elevate his career and leaving his athletes out to dry. After being turned down by Power 5 schools, in part because he didn’t have a college degree, Sanders obtained his bachelor’s through an accelerated program at Talladega College — an HBCU. On the flip side of things, the increased exposure and monetary donations propelled Jackson State and the city of Jackson, Mississippi. He also donated half of his salary back to the school for improvements. There have been valid points made by both sides, but none can deny that the relationship, albeit short, was mutually beneficial to both Sanders and the university.
Brian Flores Sues the NFL for Racial Discrimination
The NFL has long had a diversity problem in its coaching ranks and front offices. In February, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the league and all 32 of its teams. The lawsuit alleged racial discrimination in league-wide hiring practices. Flores was fired despite leading the Dolphins to the franchise’s first consecutive winning seasons since 2003. Texts received from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick showed that the New York Giants already decided to hire Brian Daboll on Jan. 23 — before interviewing any minority candidates — making the Rooney Rule procedurally useless. Flores’ interview was scheduled for Jan. 27.
The suit also accused Dolphins owner Stephen Ross of attempting to bribe Flores to “tank” for a better draft pick by offering him $100,000 per loss. Steve Wilks, current interim head coach of the Carolina Panthers, and Ray Horton have since joined the lawsuit. While it is still pending, Flores is working as the senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even though those mentioned in this article were all on very different paths, the fact remains that each of their respective sports were enriched and improved by their involvement. The magnitude of their impact outside of their competition venues will loom large for years to come.