Beijing Olympics, FIFA World Cup sparked sports controversies in 2022


The 2022 sports year was filled with uplifting moments and thrilling championship triumphs.

But it wasn’t without controversy, either.

From an unpopular NBA owner caving to calls to sell his franchise to a doping scandal at the Olympics and an NBA star coming under fire for his social media activity, this past year had several sagas that made headlines for days, weeks and sometimes months.

Here’s a look back at five of the biggest sports controversies from the past year.

Kamila Valieva doping scandal at Beijing Olympics

Kamila Valieva was the center of attention at the 2022 Beijing Olympics in February -- first for her performance, then because of a scandal.

The then-15-year-old Russian figure skating phenom stole the spotlight early in the Games by becoming the fourth woman in Olympic history to land a triple axel en route to a landslide victory in the short program of the team event. She followed that up by becoming the first woman to ever land a quad at an Olympics en route to another landslide victory in the free skate portion of the team event.

But just one day after the Russian Olympic Committee placed first in the team event, it was revealed that Valieva had tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine. The positive test was from the Russian Figure Skating Championships in December 2021, with the result coming to light during the Olympics.

Valieva was provisionally suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) due to the news of the positive test, but that decision was quickly reversed after she challenged it. Days later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) controversially ruled that Valieva, whose lawyers argued that the positive test was due to contamination from her grandfather’s medication, could continue to compete in Beijing amid a long-term investigation by the RUSADA. The CAS also ruled that no medal ceremonies involving Valieva, including the postponed team event ceremony, would take place.

Valieva, who was the favorite to earn individual gold, returned to the rink with a first-place performance in the short program before leaving the ice in tears. It would have taken a meltdown in the free skate for Valieva to miss out on the podium – and that’s exactly what happened.

Valieva fell and stumbled multiple times during her routine as she stunningly dropped from first place to fourth. Valieva's coach, Eteri Tutberidze, was captured criticizing the teenager following the performance.

"Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me -- why?" Tutberidze said. "You let it go after that axel. Why?"

Valieva once again was overcome with emotion after her score was announced.

In the wake of the Valieva scandal, the International Skating Union raised the age limit for senior international events to 17.

Meanwhile, it was revealed in November that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is seeking a four-year ban for Valieva.

Deshaun Watson traded to Browns, suspended 11 games

The Cleveland Browns parted with six draft picks, including three first-rounders, to acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson, along with a sixth-round pick, from the Houston Texans in March. Cleveland also gave Watson, who sat out the entire previous season, a fully-guaranteed, $250 million deal. And they did all that despite Watson facing civil lawsuits from more than 20 women alleging sexual misconduct.

The Browns received backlash for those moves and the messaging around them. Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslem claimed they “spent a tremendous amount of time exploring and investigating the opportunity” to acquire Watson, yet attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents most of Watson’s accusers, said the team didn’t contact him nor any of his clients.

A Texas grand jury declined to indict Watson, who has maintained his innocence, a week before the trade, but a penalty from the NFL was looming. The league, which reportedly was seeking an indefinite suspension of at least one year, didn’t initially get the punishment it was looking for when former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson recommended a six-game suspension in August. After the NFL appealed the ruling, the league and the NFLPA reached a settlement that included an 11-game suspension and a $5 million fine for Watson.

Watson, who has settled nearly all of the lawsuits against him, made his NFL return and Browns debut in Week 13 of the 2022 NFL season against his former team. Buzbee and several of Watson’s accusers planned to attend the December game, where the quarterback wound up receiving a mixture of boos and cheers while struggling performance-wise in a win over the Texans.

Robert Sarver moves to sell Phoenix Suns, Mercury amid backlash

Following a months-long investigation into claims of a hostile workplace culture within the Phoenix Suns organization, the NBA handed down a one-year suspension and a league-maximum $10 million fine to owner Robert Sarver in September. 

The league’s investigation found that Sarver “engaged in conduct that clearly violated common workplace standards,” which included “the use of racially insensitive language, unequal treatment of female employees, sexual-related statements and conduct, and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”

Many weren’t satisfied with the severity in which Sarver was punished. Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James said the league “got this wrong” and Suns star Chris Paul felt the “sanctions fell short.” Others directly called for Sarver to no longer be involved with the Suns, with team vice chairman Jahm Najafi saying he should resign and NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio wanting him banned from the NBA for life. Sarver also faced backlash from one of the team's sponsors, as PayPal said it wouldn’t renew its partnership if he remained part of the franchise.

In defense of the league’s decision, commissioner Adam Silver said he didn’t “have the right” to take away the Suns from Sarver.

But just over a week after he was suspended, Sarver opted to exit the NBA on his own. The 61-year-old, who bought the Suns in 2004, announced his plans to sell the NBA franchise, in addition to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.

Billionaire Mat Ishbia finalized a reported $4 billion deal to take over ownership of the Suns and Mercury from Sarver in December.

Kyrie Irving suspended after posts about antisemitic film

Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving tweeted an Amazon Prime Video link to the film “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” in October. He also shared a screenshot of the film’s Amazon page on his Instagram Story. Those social media posts raised eyebrows since the 2018 film, which is based on a 2015 book with the same title, is widely viewed as antisemitic.

The Nets condemned Irving’s social media activity, with owner Joe Tsai saying he was “disappointed” in the point guard. After tweeting that he “meant no disrespect to anyone's religious beliefs,” Irving was involved in a contentious postgame press conference with reporters where he defended his right to post.

“We’re in 2022. History is not supposed to be hidden from anybody and I’m not a divisive person when it comes to religion,” Irving said. “I embrace all walks of life."

Irving deleted the tweet before Brooklyn’s next game, where some fans seated courtside at Barclays Center wore “Fight Antisemitism” shirts.

Irving and the Nets would go on to announce in a joint statement with the Anti-Defamation League that they would both be donating $500,000 to anti-hate groups (the ADL later rejected Irving’s donation). While Irving took responsibility for the “negative impact” of his posts toward the Jewish community, he still didn’t make the apology Silver and many others were seeking.

The day after the joint statement was released, Irving held yet another controversial presser where he didn’t apologize and also responded to a yes-or-no question about whether he had any antisemitic beliefs by saying, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

That proved to be the final straw for the Nets, who suspended Irving for at least five games due to his failure to "disavow antisemitism" and refusal to acknowledge "specific hateful material” in the film. Nike also distanced itself from Irving, as the shoe giant suspended its relationship with the seven-time All-Star and canceled the launch of the Kyrie 8.

Irving finally issued an apology on social media just hours after his suspension, but the Nets wanted more than that from him. Brooklyn reportedly gave Irving six action items to carry out before he could return to the team, which included completing antisemitic/anti-hate training and meeting with Jewish community leaders in Brooklyn.

Following an eight-game absence, Irving made his return against the Memphis Grizzlies in November.

"Kyrie took ownership of his journey and had conversations with several members of the Jewish community," the Nets said in a statement ahead of Irving's return. "We are pleased that he is going about the process in a meaningful way."

“I just want to offer my deep apologies to all those who were impacted over these last few weeks, specifically my Jewish relatives, my Black relatives, all races and cultures,” Irving added. “Feel like we all felt an impact and I don’t stand for anything close to hate speech or antisemitism or anything that is ‘anti,’ going against the human race.

“I feel it was necessary for me to stand in this place and take accountability for my actions.”

Protests at FIFA World Cup in Qatar

The excitement of the FIFA World Cup returning in 2022 was clouded by the actions and politics of the country in which it was being played.

First, there were questions surrounding how Qatar was awarded host duties for the quadrennial tournament. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that several FIFA executives received bribes to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Those claims were denied by Russian and Qatari officials.

Then there was Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, who make up an estimated 95 percent of the country’s working population, in the leadup to the event. A top Qatari official said in November that “between 400 and 500” migrant workers had died as a result of working on projects in preparation of the World Cup, a drastically higher figure than any previously given by the country.

Once the tournament began in late November, Qatar’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights came under the spotlight. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and punishable by up to three years in prison. Seven European nations -- England, Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands -- had planned to wear armbands during the World Cup to support the “OneLove”' movement, which promotes inclusion and diversity in soccer and society. But they ultimately ditched those plans after FIFA threatened to hand out yellow cards.

Before their opening match against Japan, German players covered their mouths as they posed for a team photo in protest of not being able to don the armband. Germany's Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wore the armband at the game while sitting next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino the stands.

The Germans weren’t the only ones in Qatar to show support for the LGBTQ+ community. Prominent American soccer journalist Grant Wahl tweeted that he was denied entry into the United States’ opening game versus Wales for wearing a shirt that featured a rainbow surrounding a soccer ball. Wahl, who tragically died from a previously undiagnosed medical condition later in the tournament, said he was eventually allowed into the stadium after being “detained” for nearly 30 minutes.

One USA fan was removed from his seat by security and escorted out of the stadium for wearing a rainbow armband to the USA-Iran group stage match. The fan was later allowed back into the stadium. The Portugal-Uruguay group-stage match, meanwhile, featured a pitch invader carrying a pride flag and sporting a T-shirt that said, “Save Ukraine” on the front and “Respect for Iranian Women” on the back. The fan was released by authorities following a “brief detention.”

Contact Us