2021's most inspiring sports figures

Naomi Osaka, Kyle Beach, Carl Nassib lead the list

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Simone Biles at the InStyle Awards.
Image: Getty Images

Just a few short years ago, there was a push for athletes to be nothing more than mute entertainers. Luckily enough, they refused to “shut up” or “stick to” whatever sport they played.

And ever since a quarterback in San Francisco sat, then kneeled, during the national anthem and a group of WNBA players in Minnesota decided that enough was enough, with the help of social media, the world has been able to watch as athletes from every sex, gender, and race have been able to tell their stories and use their platforms for change.

And as 2021 winds down, Deadspin would like to take this opportunity to shout out 10 of those athletes that made this world a little better for their communities, and humanity as a whole.

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Simone Biles

Simone Biles said, “It’s your life. Do what’s best for you.”
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You know you’re important when your decision brings the entire Olympic Games to a halt. So when the face of gymnastics chose her safety and mental health over the joy we all get from watching her do flips in the air, it caused quite a stir. Some called her a quitter. Others said she was selfish and soft. And then there were the people that didn’t agree with “the timing of things.” But, in the end, as usual, those people didn’t matter. Because as important Biles was to the conversation around athletes speaking up about the immense amount of pressure they face and the expectations to always succeed under the brightest of lights — the thing that Simone Biles actually reminded us all of was a sentiment that we too often forget.

“It’s your life. Do what’s best for you.”


Carl Nassib

Carl Nassib demonstrated exceptional courage this year.
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Despite what the NFL may think, football has always been gay. In case you forgot, the league finally came to grips that all the participants of a game that’s been played for over 150 haven’t all been straight after Nassib made history by becoming the NFL’s first openly gay player.

“This spot is about celebrating Pride, and the importance of inclusion. It’s imperative that we use our voice and leverage the NFL platform to drive positive change, which includes supporting what our players care about and what they stand for,” NFL chief marketing officer Tim Ellis told Outsports.com.

Nassib’s courage and openness are proof that progress has been made, especially when you think about the way Michael Sam was blackballed by the league just a few years ago for being gay. But, unfortunately, Nassib’s situation is one that also sheds light on what members of minority groups go through. Because for all the “support” that Nassib received after he came out, he’s still playing on a team that hired and fired a homophobic coach in Jon Gruden.


Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is one of the brightest stars in tennis.
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Being a minority is hard. Being a triple minority is even harder. So when you’re Black, Asian, and a woman that plays a sport that’s always been considered white — people tend to get upset when you don’t do what they want you to do, like choosing not to partake in press conferences where a lot of bad questions are asked.

If Maria Sharapova did what Osaka did, she would have been labeled as a “mental health icon.” However, when a very shy biracial woman did it because she’d rather pay a fine to preserve her peace instead of sitting at a podium, many in the media landscape lost it.

Most journalists and media members prefer asking questions, as a lot of them hate being the ones that have to answer them. That’s why it was always quite ironic that so many of them insisted that Osaka ‘woman up” and do the thing that they despise.

Months later, we still don’t know if Osaka will participate in the sport of tennis in the way she has in the past. And to think, all of this was over some questions that probably didn’t need to be asked for some answers that many would forget.

Which begs another question: Was it worth it?

In 2021, a 24-year-old proved to us that self care is primary care. The scoreboard should read: Advantage, Osaka.


J.R. Smith

J.R. Smith became a two-sport athlete.
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It’s always funny when the person that some consider the “class clown” is the one that winds up teaching us an important lesson — you’re never too old to learn.

J.R. Smith’s decision to go back to college to get his degree — from an HBCU and become a student-athlete on the golf team was one of the better feel-good stories of 2021, as he documented the experience via social media. When Smith was coming out of high school as a McDonald’s All-American and a North Carolina commit, he was destined for college life until he changed his mind and declared for the NBA Draft.

“My family needed money. We were struggling at the time,” Smith told Golf.com.

“When my dad really fell sick and I seen the way people he helped his whole life, as well as his siblings and everybody else, pretty much turn their back on him, when he needed them, I was like, you know what, I gotta do this for my pops,” Smith explained. “I gotta do this for my family, I gotta help them and be able, financially, we don’t have to worry about it.”

Almost twenty years later, Smith is a 36-year-old freshman with a 4.0 proving that any dream can be accomplished despite your age or the path it took for you to get there.


Calvin Ridley

Calvin Ridley proved you can still be tough and take time out for mental health.
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After watching multiple players openly discuss it in the NBA, and the happenings of Naomi Osaka in tennis and Simone Biles in gymnastics, 2021 quickly became the year of mental health in sports.

But, a big, tall, fast, football player would never step away from a tough-guy sport like football would they?

Calvin Ridley did, and we should still be applauding him for it.

The Falcons receiver hasn’t suited up since the end of October, and nobody knows when he’s coming back which probably includes Ridley. The man needed a break, so he took one.

Football players are always thought to be the toughest of athletes given how violent of a sport their game is. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing tougher than taking a break from a sport like that to recharge your mind in the same way that football players rehab their bodies.


Kyle Beach

Kyle Beach revealed himself as the player at the center of a sexual abuse scandal in the NHL.
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For as beautiful as the game of hockey can be, it’s also the closest thing we have to a “caveman sport.” You’ve seen the missing teeth, unkempt hair, the wild and untamed beards, and the legalized fighting. It’s a sport full of a whole bunch of overly masculine “macho” dudes with the footwork of figure skaters.

Those kinds of environments tend to be the ones where sexual assault aren’t discussed and addressed with the best of care. But maybe Kyle Beach’s courage will change that.

Beach’s decision to come forward as John Doe in the lawsuit against the Chicago Blackhawks over his allegations of sexual assault at the hands of one of the team’s former coaches shook up the NHL. The sport — and society were forced to have conversations about what a victim is supposed to “look like,” as masculinity and muscles don’t prevent sexual assault in the same way that “how a woman dresses” is supposed to be some blanket of protection.

Kyle Beach earned our respect for giving a voice to the victims of a crime that so many times feel like they wouldn’t be believed let alone heard.


Colin Kaepernick

Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick
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The man is inescapable.

Five years after taking a knee to protest racism and police brutality, the IOC was still shaken by the movement that Kaepernick started as they decided to keep their ban on athlete protests at the Tokyo Summer Games. Even without participating, it was obvious that it was created to be a “Kaepernick rule.”

And while the “haters” might have celebrated that minor victory, Kaepernick was back in the news a few months later when his Netflix series Colin in Black & White debuted. To date, it’s one of the most-streamed original series of the year.


Sedona Prince

Sedona Prince called attention to the disparity between men’s and women’s facilities in the NCAA.
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She literally changed the game.

We knew the NCAA cared for the women’s tournament a lot less than the men’s, but we didn’t know just how bad it was until Oregon’s Sedona Price exposed them.

In just a few days, the NCAA magically had better equipment and provisions for women, proving that it was a choice not due to a lack of resources. Deadspin’s Jane McManus broke it all down in August:

“The latest example of this comes from the Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP report entitled NCAA External Gender Equity Review, but really it details the lack thereof. The report finds that the NCAA itself is responsible for holding back the growth of women’s basketball through apathy while chasing the glory and cash of the men’s game.”

“The results have been cumulative, not only fostering skepticism and distrust about the sincerity of the NCAA’s commitment to gender equity, but also limiting the growth of women’s basketball and perpetuating a mistaken narrative that women’s basketball is destined to be a ‘money loser’ year after year,” read a section of the executive summary.

Next March, the women will finally enjoy March Madness branding for their tournament, and a huge part of that is because of Sedona Prince.


Candace Parker

Candace Parker dunks on Shaquille O’Neal on a regular basis.
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Who had a better year than Candace Parker?


After solidifying herself as one of the best analysts in all of sports, while also exposing how bad Shaq is at it, Parker became the first woman to ever be on the cover of an edition of NBA 2K. She then followed that up by leading her hometown six-seeded Chicago Sky to their first WNBA championship in her debut season with the franchise.

And if that wasn’t enough, she just celebrated her second wedding anniversary and will soon be a mother again.

Candace Parker owned 2021.


Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer spoke for many of us when he expressed frustration over vaccine hesitancy.
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Remember when all those idiots in the NFL — players and coaches alike  were whining about getting vaccinated after enduring a 2020 season that the pandemic flipped on its head?

Well, we want to shout out Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer for being the only adult in the room that was publicly willing to say what needed to be said.

“I’m frustrated with not just my football players who won’t get vaccinated but everybody,” he stated.

On top of that, Zimmer has had to deal with an anti-vaxxer starting quarterback in Kirk Cousins that the team can’t get rid of due to the ridiculous guaranteed contract they gave him, that was at one time willing to surround himself with plexiglass in the team’s quarterback room instead of being vaccinated.

Hats off to Zimmer for taking the pandemic seriously in the past, and the present.


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