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2011 in sports gave us plenty to lament
I’d like to salute 2011’s year of sports. I’d love to focus on the best NBA season in more than a decade, or the best World Series I’ve ever seen, or even on Novak Djokovic’s remarkable tennis season.
I’d like to pretend this was the best year sports have ever given us.
I just can’t.
What I will always remember, first and foremost, about sports in 2011 will be standing on Joe Paterno’s lawn as the world wondered whether he shared culpability in covering up allegations that his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually abused young boys. I will remember that lawn and, instead of answers, watching the old coach lead a thousand college students in an impromptu pep rally.
“Who are we?” he screamed.
“PENN STATE!” they answered.
“Who are we?”
No, they were misguided sports fans caring more about a program than justice, evil and the most helpless among us. But it was a good question. Sports fans, who are we?
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We’re the group that a few weeks ago watched good guy and MVP-winner Ryan Braun test positive for a banned substance, raising the specter all over again that our athletes cheat like crazy -- and we responded with mostly a shrug.
We’re the ones entering a belated NBA season watching Kobe Bryant announce he and his wife are getting a divorce, a trifling thing in the larger picture but still some more ugliness mixed into our daily sports report.
We’re the American sports fan who lived out the year of the sports scandal, each in its own special way serving to soil the good parts, each eventually paling compared to the Sandusky saga.
Even the non-scandals that shaped the sports seasons we should love to love instead turned us off. There were so many shadows cast on our teams and players it's sometimes hard to remember there was sunlight at all.
The NFL? A preseason lockout pitting, yet again, millionaires against billionaires. They got that resolved in time for the season to start -- and for the NBA lockout to take on full steam and cost us part of that season.
Boston won the Stanley Cup. Then the riots came, and more than 100 people were injured, including a handful who were stabbed. It was the perfect metaphor for sports in 2011: something grand soiled almost at once by something awful.
Cam Newton was a quarterback you could root for on the field, all his dazzling talent something to behold, but questions about his recruitment made it hard to enjoy either his play or the national championship he led Auburn to in January.
Miami got itself engulfed in an ugly scandal involving Nevin Shapiro and enough allegations of NCAA infractions to have some call it one of the worst college sports scandals ever. The initial report threw around talk of an abortion for good measure, just a little more awfulness for the mix. Now, compared to Sandusky, the whole thing seems a small affair.
Same goes for Ohio State. Coach Jim Tressel lost his job over tattoos and cover-ups, Terrelle Pryor left the team, and a whole university that prided itself (like Penn State) on decency showed it was not immune to scandal.
It was as if every month or so something happened that turned our daily sports sections into ugly reading rather than a nice break from the bad stuff.
There were still plenty of great things in sports this year, things that made us jump up and cheer. Things that made us feel more connected to one another, to our cities, to the games that have been a part of our lives for our lifetimes.
Good. As it should be. But nothing changes the fact that this is the year that sports announced to us, in no uncertain terms, that they really don’t matter. That they do not mean more than real life, even if some of those at Penn State tried to pretend otherwise. That they are not immune from the horrors and indecencies we used to pretend they distracted us from.
Greed, avarice, cheating, lying, violence … and sex abuse against children. This was our sports year.
To say the Jerry Sandusky situation is awful does not approach doing it justice. This is a man accused of using his position as a big-time assistant football coach to build a charity for disadvantaged young people that allegedly doubled as his personal vehicle to find and exploit victims.
We’re talking rape here. Of kids.
The grand jury presentments are enough, alone, to have soiled the entire sports year. Ohio State, Miami, Braun, Vancouver, Sam Hurd … they’re all just the petty but problematic reminders that this was a sports year more worthy of forgetting than celebration.
That, though, could be hard. Sandusky’s trial will come soon, and with it more details of the horror he’s accused of inflicting. There are accusations in Syracuse that Bernie Fine also sexually abused two young people, and that story is so hard to make sense of -- as most sex cases are -- that the only certain thing is that it, too, will be an ugly affair.
As 2011 gives way to 2012, let’s hope that the beauty of our games reassert themselves -- and that the scandals, cheats and monsters linked to them are no more.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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