• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Biggest sports controversies of 2021: Aaron Rodgers' vax status, Urban Meyer's viral video and more

·10 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Aaron Rodgers
    Aaron Rodgers
    American football quarterback
  • Jon Gruden
    Jon Gruden
    American football coach

A lot has happened in the sports world in 2021.

After sports came to a complete halt in 2020 amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 represented the year that leagues attempted to find a new normal.

The 2020 Summer Olympics took place in Tokyo after the international event was postponed for a year due to the pandemic, but not without controversy. The NFL, NBA and other leagues across the globe implemented their own COVID-19 protocols to ensure safety, but not without resistance. Athletes took a stand against the status quo, but not without consequences.

From Aaron Rodgers' misleading COVID-19 vaccination status to Sha'Carri Richardson missing the Olympics over a failed drug test, here are eight of the biggest controversies in the sports world in 2021.

2021 IN REVIEW: A sports story for every month that you shouldn't forget

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW: Stay up to date with our sports newsletter

Aaron Rodgers' reputation took a hit after his appearances on "The Pat McAfee Show".
Aaron Rodgers' reputation took a hit after his appearances on "The Pat McAfee Show".

COVID-19 blunders

Aaron Rodgers misrepresents his vaccination status

The 38-year-old reigning NFL MVP misled the public about his vaccination status until he tested positive for COVID-19 in early November following a Halloween party with teammates.

Despite telling reporters in August that he was "immunized" ahead of the season, Rodgers had not actually been vaccinated for COVID-19 by NFL standards.

During his weekly appearance on "The Pat McAfee Show" two days after he tested positive, Rodgers said he wasn't "some sort of anti-vax, flat-earther" but rather "a critical thinker." He said he took ivermectin to treat COVID-19, one of the many controversial comments he made while defending his position.

“I realize I'm in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now,” Rodgers told McAfee.

As an unvaccinated player, Rodgers faced a mandatory 10-day quarantine that forced him to miss one game. Rodgers was fined for violating COVID-19 protocols, mainly for not wearing a mask at press conferences. The Packers were fined $300,000 for their lack of oversight over Rodgers.

Rodgers later acknowledged his "misleading" remarks: "To anybody who felt misled by those comments, I take full responsibility for those comments."

MORE: Rodgers says he takes responsibility for 'misleading' comments about his vaccine status

Antonio Brown caught falsifying vax record

In December, the NFL suspended the Tampa Bay Buccaneers star for three games without pay for violating COVID-19 protocols after a review determined Brown "misrepresented" his vaccination status, marking the latest misstep for the controversial wide receiver.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians said the news of Brown, one of two active players suspended over fake vaccination cards, "pisses me off" because it undermines the "amazing job" his football club has done at handling COVID-19.

He returned to the field on Dec. 26 to help the shorthanded Bucs clinch their first NFC South title since 2007 with 10 catches for 101 yards in his first game from suspension.

Following his bounce-back performance, Brown sounded off about the "drama."

"It's a lot of drama you guys create. A lot of drama people create who want stuff from me. That's a part of life, a part of being in the position. I can't control what people want from me, what people write about me,” Brown told reporters following the Bucs’ 32-6 win over the Carolina Panthers.

"I'm just here to do my job. I can't control what people write, how people try to frame me. People try to bring me down. Life is about obstacles and persevering and doing what's right ... I'm standing before you guys grateful, humble, thankful.”

ANTONIO BROWN: Bucs WR laments 'drama' in first game back from suspension

OPINION: Antonio Brown reaches new low and now must pay the price

Antonio Brown was suspended for three games for violating the NFL's COVID-19 protocols.
Antonio Brown was suspended for three games for violating the NFL's COVID-19 protocols.

Head coaching woes

Gruden resigns after racist, misogynistic emails

In October, Jon Gruden resigned as the Raiders head coach after emails he sent containing racist, misogynistic and homophobic language came to light.

The emails were uncovered as part of the league's investigation into the Washington Football Team’s alleged toxic workplace culture, a probe that resulted in a $10 million fine for WFT, but no written report detailing what investigators uncovered.

On Oct. 8, the Wall Street Journal reported that Gruden used a racist trope when describing NFL Players' Association executive director DeMaurice Smith in a 2011 email.

On Oct. 11, the New York Times separately revealed emails sent between 2011 and 2018, where Gruden used a homophobic slur to describe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, denigrated one team's decision to draft a gay player, mocked transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner, deprecated female referees and suggested that a player who kneeled during the national anthem should be fired, among other things.

Gruden resigned a little more than an hour after the Times' revelation.

In November, Gruden's lawyer Adam Hosmer-Henner alleged the NFL and Goodell "selectively leaked Gruden’s private correspondence to The Wall Street Journal and New York Times in order to harm Gruden’s reputation and force him out of his job.”

The NFL has denied Gruden's accusations, calling the allegations "entirely meritless."

RESIGNED: Jon Gruden out as Raiders' coach after controversial emails

BRENT MUSBURGER: Jon Gruden email leak was a 'professional hit job'

Former Raiders coach Jon Gruden has filed a lawsuit against the NFL.
Former Raiders coach Jon Gruden has filed a lawsuit against the NFL.

Urban Meyer dances with woman in a viral video

In October, a video surfaced online showing Meyer inappropriately touching a woman who was not his wife in a Columbus, Ohio, restaurant. The incident happened the day after Meyer opted not to travel back to Florida with the Jacksonville Jaguars so he could spend time with his grandchildren and attend an event.

Meyer apologized to his team for "being a distraction" and called his behavior "stupid."

This was one of many off-field controversies that plagued Meyer's short tenure with Jacksonville since he was hired in January to coach the league's worst team.

Meyer hired a strength and and conditioning coach, Chris Doyle, who had been fired at Iowa for accusations of using racist language. Meyer was fined by the NFL for using COVID-19 vaccination status as a factor for roster cuts and he used one roster spot to sign his former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow as a tight end. (Tebow, unsurprisingly, was among the first cuts.) Reports surfaced that Meyer called his assistant coaches losers and kicked a player while stretching.

He was ultimately fired in December after just 13 games with the franchise.

FIRED: What we know about Urban Meyer's tenure as Jacksonville Jaguars coach

TIMELINE: Urban Meyer's long series of controversies marked short tenure

Jaguars coach Urban Meyer
Jaguars coach Urban Meyer

Olympic shuns, surprises

Sha’Carri Richardson left off Olympic team after testing positive for marijuana

U.S. sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson won the 100-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, punching her ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but she never got the chance to compete for gold after testing positive for marijuana.

In June, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that Richardson had been suspended for one month over the failed drug test, invalidating her win and preventing the 21-year-old from competing in the 100-meter at the Tokyo Olympics in July.

Richardson issued an apology on NBC's "Today" show, admitting that she used marijuana to cope after learning from a reporter that her biological mother had died.

Although she couldn't compete in her signature event, Richardson was eligible for the women's 4x100 relay, which was scheduled to take place in August after her suspension was lifted. However, USA Track & Field didn't select Richardson for the team in order to "maintain fairness for all of the athletes."

Richardson returned to the track at the Prefontaine Classic on Aug. 21 for her first race since her suspension. She finished ninth, last place, with a time of 11.14 seconds.

"This is one race. I'm not done. You know what I'm capable of," Richardson said after the race. "Count me out if you want to. Talk all the (expletive) you want, 'cause I'm here to stay. I'm not done."

MORE: Sha'Carri Richardson not picked for 4x100 relay team, will miss Tokyo Olympics

OPINION: Sha'Carri Richardson's marijuana ban is another example of Olympic hypocrisy

Sha'Carri Richardson did not participate in the Tokyo Olympics after a failed drug test.
Sha'Carri Richardson did not participate in the Tokyo Olympics after a failed drug test.

Alen Hadzic allowed to compete at Olympics despite sexual misconduct investigation

Hadzic was permitted to participate in the Tokyo Games as an alternate for the 2021 U.S. Olympic fencing team despite being under investigation for sexual misconduct.

USA Fencing allowed Hadzic to compete after an arbitrator lifted a temporary suspension imposed by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which continues to investigate the allegations of sexual misconduct. Before the Olympics, three women reported the allegations of sexual misconduct by Hadzic to SafeSport, an independent nonprofit that investigates allegations of abuse committed against Olympic and amateur athletes.

The incidents allegedly took place between 2013 and 2015.

USA Fencing drew criticism for Hadzic's participation even though it imposed a “safety plan’’ that prevented Hadzic from staying in the Olympic village with the other fencers. At the Olympics, three of Hadzic’s teammates wore pink face masks to protest the presence of Hadzic, who was wearing a black mask during the team photo.

In October, USA Fencing announced it would block Hadzic from entering events "for the foreseeable future." Hadzic's attorney said he will fight to protect the fencer's right to participate.

ALEN HADZIC: US fencer confronts teammates wearing pink masks in apparent protest of his inclusion on team

Tennis faults social issues

Naomi Osaka skips French Open press over mental health; withdraws after fines

In May, Osaka announced that she would would not participate in post-match press conferences during the French Open to preserve her mental health. She compared the media's questioning of athletes after a loss to "kicking a person while they're down."

"We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me," Osaka wrote.

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open for a mental health break.
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open for a mental health break.

She was fined $15,000 for skipping the news conference after her first-round victory — and threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with the possibility of disqualification or suspension if she continued to avoid the media. Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros days later.

Osaka said she never intended to be a "distraction." She acknowledged her initial message "could have been clearer" and the timing "was not ideal," but revealed that she experienced anxiety before speaking to the media and suffered bouts of depression.

She said she would "take some time away from the court now."

OSAKA: 'It's OK to not be OK'; standing up for mental health 'all worth it'

OPINION: Naomi Osaka's shocking French Open withdrawal offers lessons for all involved

Peng Shuai's disappearance

Knowledge of the Chinese tennis star's whereabouts have been sporadic ever since she accused a high-ranking official of the Chinese Communist Party of sexual assault forcing her into sex in a November social media post that has since been deleted.

Screen shots of the post were shared across the internet, drawing widespread concern about Peng’s safety from politicians and fellow tennis stars.

This file photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows China's Peng Shuai reacting after beating Venus Williams at the China Open.
This file photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows China's Peng Shuai reacting after beating Venus Williams at the China Open.

The Women's Tennis Association immediately voiced its concern and said her message through state-run media saying that she was OK, despite nearly two weeks of silence, was not sufficient proof of her safety. An alleged call between Shuai and the IOC did little to ease worries. In December, the WTA announced it was suspending all events in China indefinitely.

During an interview with the Lianhe Zaobao Chinese-language newspaper late December, Shuai denied saying she was sexually assaulted.

IOC says it held video call with Peng Shuai, who 'reconfirmed' she is 'safe and well'

WTA: Tennis events in China suspended over concern for Peng Shuai following sexual assault allegations

Contributing: Chris Bumbaca, Steve Gardner, Josh Peter, USA TODAY; Joe Harrington, The Columbus Dispatch; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021's Sports Controversies: Aaron Rodgers, Urban Meyer, Olympics, more