Depending on your point of view, trying to decide which sports moments were the most bizarre in 2020 could either be incredibly easy or an exercise in futility. The entire year was surreal, particularly from a sports perspective, where things like "COVID reserve lists" became common parlance, and games were canceled, moved, or played in semi-farcical conditions because of the virus. Occasionally, weird things happened on the field as well, so let's take a look at the most bizarre sports moments of the most bizarre year any of us have ever lived through.
Who knows how long sports leagues may have tried to continue playing games - albeit in empty arenas - had Gobert not mocked COVID-19 and made a big show of touching every microphone he could on his way out of an interview room. Gobert tested positive shortly thereafter, and it seemed like the shock of the moment galvanized the NBA and other leagues to swiftly move to put their seasons on hold. Gobert took plenty of heat for his move, but it's reasonable to assume that he inadvertently prevented even more infections.
Once Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, having previously made a mockery of the virus by touching every microphone in a press conference, the sports world ground to a halt. Cancelations started on March 11th, but it was March 12th when things really got serious; college basketball tournaments were canceled across the country, and the NHL and NBA stopped their games indefinitely as well. Major League Baseball announced it was delaying its Opening Day by at least two weeks as well, a detail that seems comical in retrospect.
Just days after all conference tournaments were canceled, the men's and women's NCAA Tournaments were the next dominoes to fall. Despite the protests of some coaches, athletic directors, and players, the NCAA made the decision to cancel its signature and by far its biggest revenue-generating event. As a result, Kansas ended the season ranked number one in the final AP poll if you'd like to win a sports trivia contest in a few years.
The NFL has, over the years, turned its annual draft into a television event that does huge rating numbers. That wasn't going to be feasible in 2020, so the league decided to do things lo-fi, with Roger Goodell conducting the draft from his basement, which, while very nice, looked very much like it had been decorated in a way to make him seem like an average, everyman type. The virtual draft actually drew rave reviews from many, with fans praising the more intimate feel of the process, and the more genuine displays of emotion. Hey Rog, want to make this a regular thing moving for--no, you don't? Okay, then.
Viewers did not have to wait long to have their first COVID-related logistical glitch. In the NFL season opener between the Texans and Chiefs, it became very apparent that Andy Reid's face shield was too foggy to allow him to easily read his play sheet. The broadcast focused on it throughout, Reid looked extremely uncomfortable, but even all of that wasn't enough to give the Texans a fighting chance in the game. The story did have a happy ending; Reid had a much more functional face shield the following week.
At first, the Big Ten tried to take a noble stand, deciding not to play football while the pandemic was ongoing. If the conference thought that others would follow their lead, however, they were wrong. The Pac-12 went along initially, but the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 all elected to continue playing. Eventually, the Big Ten changed course, but their season started so late that, ironically, the decision to hold off initially led to far higher case numbers and many more canceled games. All in all, a bad, sloppy look for the conference.
The golf world was abuzz at DeChambeau's physical transformation in pursuit of maximum distance, and his added bulk had a very unintended consequence at the PGA Championship. DeChambeau briefly leaned on his driver when picking up his tee, the way just about every golfer does, when the head snapped off at his feet. Because the incident was an accident, DeChambeau was allowed to repair the club and continue with a different shaft. Still, the whole situation was perhaps the strangest one for a man for whom strange situations became common this year.
You've won a major championship, and beaten the best golfers in the world with a clutch performance late. Now you get to enjoy the spoils of your victory at the trophy presentation. That's how it's supposed to work, right? Put on the fancy watch, smile, pose for some pictures, and just enjoy being on top of the golf world. Morikawa put on a display of clutch shot-making to win the PGA Championship, but bogeyed during the trophy presentation, albeit in humorous fashion. Not realizing that the Wanamaker Trophy's lid was loose, he picked it up, didn't keep it quite level, and the lid fell off mid-pose.
Veteran guard Lou Williams was a key cog on a Clippers team that many expected to win the NBA title in the bubble. He left the bubble to attend his grandfather's memorial service, but then made headlines when photos of him inside Magic City, an Atlanta strip club, surfaced online. Williams insisted he was there to get some of the club's highly regarded chicken wings and even had a flavor named after him on the menu, but whatever his motivation, he still had to go into a mandatory 10-day quarantine, and missed the start of bubble play. While Williams had to deal with criticism initially, it seemed like most fans enjoyed the absurd nature of the situation.
Given that everything about 2020 is unusual in one way or another, it takes a pretty strange situation to cut through all the COVID-related noise. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Minnesota Twins were playing a game in Minneapolis on August 4th when, in the top of the fifth inning, the game was stopped because of an unauthorized drone flying over Target Field. Pitchers from both bullpens took shots at knocking the drone out of the sky with baseballs, to no avail. Eventually, the drone left and the game resumed, which was probably a bummer for Pirates fans.
The Marlins were a classic example of how not to handle an outbreak. The team was in Atlanta when some players left the team hotel to go out in the city. That was enough to spark a major outbreak that resulted in positive tests for nearly two-dozen Marlins players. If that wasn't enough, with positive tests already known, players were apparently left with the play or don't play decision for a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The whole thing nearly mushroomed into a total disaster that threatened the entire MLB season. Oh, and the Marlins ended up making the playoffs, to boot.
No baseball team has done a better job staying ahead of the curve in regards to analytics than the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays do things unconventionally, and usually to great effect. Their methods were enough to get them all the way to the World Series this year, and maybe they'd have won the whole thing over the Dodgers. We'll never know, however, because Kevin Cash opted to take out starter Blake Snell with one out in the sixth inning, and the Rays clinging to a 1-0 lead. Cash explained later that he didn't want Snell to go through Los Angeles' lineup a third time, despite his only having thrown 73 pitches. Reliever Nick Anderson came in, promptly gave up a double, threw a wild pitch to tie the game, then gave up a fielder's choice that gave the Dodgers the series-winning run. Not great!
Brown is one of the league's most talented but mercurial players, and his career may have been over but for Brady's repeated lobbying of the Buccaneers to sign him. Finally, Tampa Bay did, and Brown moved in with Brady at Derek Jeter's old house. The two lived together for the brief time that Brown played for New England, so the seemingly odd dynamic was not a new one for them. The living arrangement only lasted until Brown got settled in Tampa - at least, that's what everyone is saying. Brown hasn't done much on the field, but he has stayed out of the headlines, so things could be worse.
Thanks to a slew of positive tests on the Ravens, really an outbreak in the truest sense, the Steelers' game with Baltimore, originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night, was pushed all the way back to the following Wednesday. Pittsburgh met what amounted to Baltimore's JV team, as the Ravens were without roughly half their starting 22, including reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, at 3:40 in the afternoon. The game was played at that strange time to accommodate the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony later that night. Considering how ugly the Steelers' 19-14 win was, NBC was lucky this game stayed out of prime time.
At least once every season, something happens that defies belief, and often times, officials are in the center of the incident. That was the case when Washington took on Pittsburgh on Monday, December 7th. Washington was trailing 14-0 with only seconds to go before halftime when Alex Smith was sacked, and the Football Team was out of timeouts. Smith ran off the field with the football, while Washington scrambled to get its kicking team on the field. In the confusion, the officials said that the clock would be stopped due to "administrative issues," which allowed Washington to set up for what ended up a successful field goal, in a game they won, 23-17.
Only one U.S. pro sports team can empathize with the Toronto Raptors, and that team is the San Francisco 49ers. Because of a three-week ban on games and practices for contact sports in Santa Clara County, the 49ers were forced to find a new home for the rest of the NFL season, and the team ended up finding a temporary home in Arizona. San Francisco, predictably, lost the first game they played in their temporary digs, though at least the team was already going nowhere fast at that point in the season.
Stadiums across all sports have either been mostly or completely empty, but that hasn't stopped networks from trying to pretend like everything is normal. Crowd noise has been piped into broadcasts, and while it seems to work okay when the stands aren't visible, there are few things stranger than hearing noise while a sea of empty seats are all that is visible. No matter how many games have been played, the hum of noise juxtaposed with the shots of cavernous, empty arenas gotten no less strange.
The entire concept of playing sports has seemed at times like a farce this year, though the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL have managed to conduct their seasons with either zero (NBA and NHL) or some (NFL and MLB) issues. Predictably, college football's season has been the strangest, and the most preposterous. In a move that drove home the point of college football - money - the Big Ten waved its minimum games requirement for participation in the Big Ten Championship Game to accommodate Ohio State, also clearing the path to ensure that the Buckeyes could participate in the College Football Playoff with a victory. How sporting of them.
The call was so bad, so totally and completely wrong for the situation, that you'd be forgiven for thinking Williams did it on purpose, and that the Jets were trying to lose. Facing Las Vegas, and holding on to a 28-24 lead with the Raiders at their 46-yard-line, Williams inexplicably called for an all-out blitz, leaving defensive back Lamar Jackson with no help over the top on speedy rookie Henry Ruggs. The Raiders picked up the blitz, Derek Carr took his shot and dropped a ball right on the money to Ruggs for an unfathomable Las Vegas victory. Williams was fired the next day.
The Ravens and Cowboys were set to kick off on a Tuesday night game that was moved as part of the fallout from the Ravens' outbreak the week of Thanksgiving, and Bryant got the news less than 30 minutes before kickoff that he had tested positive. He sent out a tweet indicating as such, then "quit" via another tweet 15 minutes later. The tweets were strange, and so was the fact that the game kept going, despite Bryant being seen on the field around numerous people from both teams. The NFL went along with the game and denied that anyone was in any extra danger because of Bryant's positive test. Okay, guys, whatever you say.
The fundamental absurdity of college football scheduling practices was laid bare in 2020, as teams that previously wouldn't consider playing one another scrambled to find games to fill out their schedules. For BYU and Coastal Carolina, an open date on the schedule was a chance for each program to prove its worth on a high-profile national stage. The game was scheduled on a Wednesday and played three days later, which meant that BYU's equipment staff had to make a 33-hour, 2,223-mile drive (or so Google Maps says) from Provo, Utah, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to get the Cougars' gear to the stadium on-time. The game was drama-filled and featured a goal-line stand by the Chanticleers to preserve their victory, but we'll likely never see anything like it again.
Your mileage may vary, but as strange as it is to hear piped-in crowd noise in empty stadiums, seeing cardboard cutouts of fans adds a whole different level of weirdness to the proceedings. Just about every team is doing it, and some are even mixing the cardboard cutout fans with real ones. The whole thing is surreal, uncomfortable, and generally something you can't wait to be done with. Kind of like 2020, now that I think about it.
Harden doesn't want to be in Houston anymore, and he has made no secret of that fact. He did not show up in town until December 8th, two days after the team had begun practicing, and was clearly out of shape, something he flat-out admitted. There were pictures of Harden partying with rapper Lil' Baby in Atlanta, and he was also spotted at a Las Vegas nightclub. The entire situation has already gotten plenty ugly, and if the team can't find a trade partner, could get uglier still.
The Browns and Ravens played the NFL's game of the year in Week 14, one that featured tons of offense of all types, plenty of dramatic moments and momentum swings, and...Lamar Jackson running to the locker room with the Ravens about to take possession of the football, clinging to a six-point lead. Jackson said he was cramping, but Twitter took the situation and ran with it, wondering if Jackson was answering nature's call at a very inopportune time. With things looking grim for Baltimore - they were forced to go to Trace McSorley, who sprained his knee on a third-down keeper. Down to their last shot, the Ravens got a jolt when Jackson jogged - okay, waddled - out of the locker room, and proceeded to throw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Marquise Brown. Only in 2020.
The Browns and Ravens played the NFL's game of the year on Monday, December 14th. The teams traded punches down the stretch after Baltimore had opened up a 34-20 lead early in the third quarter, and it appeared Justin Tucker's 55-yard field goal with two seconds left would be the final dramatic moment in the game. It was not, however - at least, not if you had the Browns at +3 or the Ravens at -3. Cleveland's last-ditch effort at a hook-and-lateral play on the ensuing kickoff went backward in a hurry and ended with Jarvis Landry taking a safety. That pushed the final margin to 47-42, and depending on your bet, either made you very happy or very, very angry.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.