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My Top 10: The Stories That Made Me Laugh, Cry, Scream, and/or Throw Things at the TV in 2021

I promise they’re not all about sports.

Kimberly Joyner
9 min readDec 31, 2021


Those of you who read my blog regularly have likely noticed that three of the last six essays I’ve published were about sports — and you have probably wondered along the way, “Wait a minute, is she a sports writer now?”

Nope. This blog was, and continues to be, a blog about politics and the intersections with pop culture. I simply found myself intellectually more attracted to the crazy headlines coming out of the college sports world this year than I did anything else that inspired the start of this blog.

And when I say it’s been a crazy year in college football, the sport I follow closest, I mean it. Thus a big chunk of the stories that made my top 10 of 2021 do come from the world of sports. But there were other amazing, harrowing, and thought-provoking stories this year that I will never forget — stories that compel me to fight for the time, energy, and resources to publish regularly here and on other platforms in 2022.

In the meantime, here are my favorite stories in sports, politics, and pop culture from 2021, from the good to the G.O.A.T.

10. The FDA and CDC Pause the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 Vaccine

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I don’t know how much of a lasting impact the FDA and CDC’s 10-day pause on the Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccine had on Americans getting vaccinated, but it was a defining moment for me in terms of revealing a deepening divide between the public health community and those in the journalism / media / communications world. A number of journalists at the time feared the government’s pause gave vaccine conspiracy theorists all the ammunition they needed to advance their campaign of misinformation just as vaccine eligibility and access were growing across the country.

More than anything, though, it became clear that the health experts who were tasked with delivering information about the vaccines to the public might not be the best folks to assess the risks and potential misuse of the information they put forward for a distrusting and politically polarized public to consume.

9. “The Great Resignation”

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Where did millions of American workers go between 2019 and 2021? In early 2021, the answer to this question seemed obvious: People were afraid of dying from covid-19. So they quit. Or they worked in a job sector that had been decimated by the pandemic and were forced out of the market. But how were they supporting themselves without work? Easy. Extended unemployment benefits. Or so it seemed.

As the covid-19 vaccine became widely available and state and federal unemployment benefits began to dry up, the picture of what was keeping so many Americans out of work looked a lot fuzzier. To this day I remain unconvinced that there’s a simple or single answer to this question; but I appreciate deep dives like the one by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic that attempt to reconcile different explanations and embrace the humility that comes with admitting uncertainty.

8. The Second Impeachment of President Donald Trump

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On January 13, Donald Trump became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice. The second impeachment followed Trump’s role in inciting the January 6 domestic terror attack on the U.S. Capitol. While the vote in the House to impeach Trump was bipartisan, the Senate did not convict him on the charges brought to the chamber (by the time the trial was over, Trump had already left office). It seems unlikely Trump will ever face accountability for his many efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results —through the intimidation of public officials, disinformation campaigns about voter fraud, and through mob violence — which is why I worry this won’t be the last time a story like this makes my end-of-year list.

7. Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License”

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Rodrigo was perhaps the biggest breakout star in all of music in 2021, spearheaded by her evocative single “Drivers License.” I was surprised by how much I connected with this song and the real-life teenage love triangle that inspired it. But there’s a recurring theme in “Drivers License” that colors Rodrigo’s follow-up album, “Sour” as well: Sometimes the bigger heartbreak is the realization that the breakup didn’t mean as much to him as it did to you. The rage Rodrigo bellows out in two other popular singles, “Good 4 U” and “Deja Vu” is a clear signal to men who try to win the breakup by pretending they’ve lost nothing in losing you. We see you. And you’re an even bigger ass than we knew.

6. The Crash and Burn of Urban Meyer

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I genuinely got of sick of seeing this man’s name in the news every other day, always for the dumbest, cruelest things. I wasn’t one of those naysayers from the beginning who felt the Urban Meyer experiment in Jacksonville was destined to fail like it did. But at a certain point — and for me, that certain point was when Meyer, a married man, chose to feel up coeds at a bar in Ohio after a loss rather than travel back to Jacksonville with his team — the situation just became a horrifying parody of what the league allows white men to get away with — even when they aren’t winning games.

5. Alexi McCammond Gets Cancelled…Kind Of

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If there were ever a test case for the excesses of “woke” politics, former Axios reporter Alexi McCammond’s ouster from Teen Vogue over racist and homophobic tweets from her teen years seemed to be it. But back in March I ended up with a more complicated telling of her departure than what initial headlines lead me to believe happened. Of all the essays I wrote in 2021, the McCammond piece is probably the one I’m most proud of in terms of the research and willingness to offer a perspective that, well, doesn’t satisfy any one side in the end. It’s a messy thing that happened to her, and it’s a good thing when writers can unclutter the story without shoehorning a hero or villain or victim when there isn’t one.

4. The Summer of Realignment

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The world of college sports was turned upside down in late July when the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners announced they would be leaving the Big 12 conference for the SEC after 2025. With the two most revenue-generating programs by a mile leaving the conference, many assumed the Big 12 would disband or experience death-by-a-thousand-cuts as the remaining Big 12 schools sought out other conferences to join. And on the heels of NIL’s legalization, the SEC was starting to look like the very monopoly the NCAA had been accused of running in the Supreme Court case that eventually ended the organization’s power to deny student athletes name, image, and likeness earning opportunities.

Looking back, if I had to pick the political equivalent to this bombshell story in the sporting world, I’d have to go with former President Trump firing former FBI Director James Comey. It was that big. And of course, this bombshell paved the way for a few recent and equally earth-shattering stories in college football — namely, newly minted USC head coach Lincoln Riley leaving the Sooners in November to avoid joining the SEC.

3. The Disappearance and Death of Gabby Petito

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Much like the Alexi McCammond/Teen Vogue saga, I was drawn to the disappearance and death of 22 year-old Gabby Petito largely because I felt coverage of her story and the interest in it generated by social media lacked nuance — not just by the media, but by the media’s critics. Yes, Petito was a pretty, blond, fit white woman. No, the media would not have afforded a missing Black woman the same coverage, if any coverage at all.

But there were plenty of other reasons Petito’s story went viral.

For one, Petito was extremely active on social media, documenting the trip where she ultimately vanished and was murdered, likely by her fiancé, on YouTube. It makes sense that other young social media users would take an interest in the case and that the national media would follow suit. And of course, the bizarre circumstances of her disappearance were all digital-age true crime tropes: Petito’s Spotify playlist gets updated out of the blue to include songs about burial; her latest Instagram posts don’t match her usual posting habits; text messages from her phone use names she would never use to refer to members of her family.

But what frustrated me the most about criticism of the coverage of Petito’s case is that while Gabby Petito was very clearly a victim of domestic violence, the possibility that millions of young women might follow the case out of solidarity with her experience, or might be roused in light of her murder to seek help for themselves, was erased from the conversation — and Petito was reduced to the media’s “Missing White Woman” problem. It just felt wrong to deny a dead woman this public mourning and rage simply because women who look differently than her don’t often get the same attention from the media when they are killed.

2. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock Deliver the Senate to Democrats

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Though overshadowed by the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing extremists, the January 5 run-off electoral victories of Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, two Democrats running to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate, was easily the most inspirational story in politics in 2021. Their victories gave Democrats the Senate majority needed to pass the American Rescue Plan which provided monetary relief to millions of Americans amid the covid-19 pandemic. But the ongoing intra-party scuffle over Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is a brutal reminder of the limits of the Democrats’ slim majority. Still, the organizing power, particularly within Black and Brown communities in Georgia, is something progressives have to feel good about for future elections.

1. Bottlegate

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Yes, the ending to the Ole Miss-Tennessee game was my favorite news story in all of 2021. It was hilarious and humiliating and horrifying and just about the perfect tableau for the age of tribe politics and moral panics. But it was also kind of amazing to watch something on live TV that I had an instant historical reference for thanks to a sports history YouTube channel I watch regularly. A few years back I watched a short documentary about the original Bottlegate from 20 years prior and the similarly abject Cleveland Browns fans who trashed the football field following an inexplicable play review by the officials after another play had already happened.

But the best thing about this story? The mustard memes. That’s going to stick with Tennessee fans for life. And as an Alabama fan I couldn’t be happier about it.



Kimberly Joyner

I write about American politics, current events, and gender/feminism in TV and film. Based in Atlanta, GA. Email: