Monday, December 13, 2010

2010 Year In Sports

There are still a few weeks left in 2010-- and who knows what else may happen... or, ahem, be "leaked"?-- so in advance of posting my comprehensive "Year In Review" list, I thought I'd do a few specialized lists. Since the last few weeks of the year are mostly holding-pattern time in sports, it's the least likely that something game-changing will happen there. So, first up in my series of 2010 lists is the Year in Sports.

On balance, there was more to cheer than to moan about for sports fans this year, though the lows were particularly moan-worthy. (I'm looking at YOU, Brett Favre and Tiger Woods, among others.) We were fortunate this year to be blessed with the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, which gave us a whole extra month of sports excitement, not to mention an only once-every-four-years chance to relax our American Sports Solipsism and share the love of the Beautiful Game with the rest of the world. As happens more and more these days, there was as much sports news OFF the field/court/pitch/course/track than there was on it, but the very best of this year's sports was far better than the very worst of this years sports news. Best of all, 2010 quite literally showered us with every true sports fan's most beloved phenomenon of all-- the come-from-behind, odds-are-against-them, let's-make-a-movie-about it, paint-my-face-and-torso-with-love-for-them, bursting-with-hustle-and-heart UNDERDOGS-- which leads me, despite all the other stories that are (or could be) on this list, to christen 2010 "The Year of the Underdog" in sport.

Here are my picks for the year-end headlines:

Oh Yes, I Want To Be In That Number...
... when the New Orleans Saints go marching in!! I find it hard to believe that anyone with a beating human heart wasn't rooting for the underdog Saints to win Super Bowl XLIV against the Indianapolis Colts. (And I'm a Colts fan!) New Orleans, which had more credit on its karmic balance than just about any other place in the country, finally cashed in by bringing home NOLA's first ever Super Bowl trophy to its abidingly loyal fans. And they did so by soundly defeating one of the NFL's perennial favorites. The game itself was great, but not nearly as great as the clips from back home in New Orleans, where fans flooded the streets of the French Quarter and celebrated with brass bands, shouting the famous "Who Dat?" slogan that came to define civic pride in New Orleans. It's always hard to say in advance of a game who "deserves" to win... but not this time. The winners of Super Bowl XLIV, and every single citizen of Who Dat Nation, deserved this victory. Way to go, Saints.

Cinderella Dances Big
For the first couple of months of 2010, the New Orleans Saints were the odds-on favorite for Underdog of the Year status... until, that is, March Madness came along. Without question, this year gave us the greatest, most exciting, most heartbreaking, heartwarming, and bracket-busting Big Dance in college basketball history. It would take too much space to recount here all of the nuances and number-crunching of Big Dance bracketology, but it suffices to say that last year's Final Four teams (with a #1 seed, a #2 seed, and TWO #5 seeds) were not only unpredicted, but almost unpredictable. One of those #5 seeds was the practically-unheard-of Butler Bulldogs, who miraculously made it to the Final Game against a team with a long and illustrious history of NCAA victories, the Duke Blue Devils. What's more, Butler almost won. The Cinderella team was just slipping its toes into the Championship glass slipper when their last-second, potentially game-winning shot from mid-court goes up in the air, straight toward the basket, off the backboard and... OH THE HUMANITY!... bounces off the rim for a 59-61 loss. If you can stand it, watch the last minute and a half of the game again. That's how dreams are crushed, and fans are born.

Donovan Makes Shot Heard Round The World
I'll admit it. I was one of those Americans who basically didn't know anything about the most popular sports game in the world: football (or futball, or soccer). As much as I am embarrassed to admit it now, in early June 2010, I didn't even know that the FIFA World Cup was happening this year, or that it was a big deal. Luckily for me, my good friend Petya Kirilova-Grady and her husband took it upon themselves to disabuse me of my ignorance... which means among other things that we spent part of our vacation in New Orleans this summer traipsing around desparately looking for seats in a bar that was showing the USA vs. England match. (Not easy to find, fyi.) Once they saw that I was hooked, they also took it upon themselves over the next month to wake me up (at 8am some mornings) and accompany me to our local pub to watch soccer. (Did I mention the 8am part?) Truth is, though, I've never felt so patriotic as I did when Landon Donovan made the game-winning goal (aka, "The Shot Heard Round The World") against Algeria. USA! USA! USA! Of course, our national team didn't make it much further, but I definitly caught the soccer bug and watched the rest of the World Cup like a real fan. Can't wait til 2014 in Brazil, when I'll be setting my own alarm.

Lebron James Breaks Up With Cleveland Via ESPN
Everyone knows that you just don't break up with somebody over the phone. Or by text message. Or Facebook. Or, for that matter, ESPN. Well, everybody but "King" Lebron James knows that. Sure, he's probably one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the hardwood, having made good many times over on the promise he exhibited as a straight-out-of-high-school draft pick. And, okay, we can't reasonably expect an athlete of his talent to waste away his years in dedication to a city that will likely never give him a champioship ring. And, yes, no self-respecting NBA fan wants to pass up the chance to see a dream team consisting of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh play ball. But King James' opting to annouce "The Decision" to leave Cleveland and "take his talents to South Beach" on a prime-time, hour-long ESPN special was a bit... well, classless. I mean, the Governor of Ohio got all those people together and recorded a song begging you to stay, Lebron, would it have been too much to just give them a call ahead of time and let them know that they were about to get the shaft?

Crappy-Conference Teams Continue To Complain Too Much
The BCS (Bowl Champoinship Series), which determines the teams that will play in college football's post-season "bowl" games, is an imperfect system. It's an imperfect system that replaced a previous imperfect system and, if it is itself replaced, will be replaced by another imperfect system. Why? Two simple reasons: (1) because as long as we consider college football players to be primarily "student-athletes," a multi-week playoff system will never work, and (2) because college football fans are hard-wired to gripe and complain about their team not getting enough respect in every single year that their team doesn't win the National Championship. The perennial gripers come from non-AQ (automatic qualifying) conferences, which pretty much need an undefeated season in order to make it into one of the BCS bowl games. (Chief among the non-AQ complainers are Boise State, TCU, Utah and Brigham Young University.) As someone who has no qualms about pointing out the TOTALLY OBVIOUS FACT that NONE of those teams could survive even a HALF-season (even in a BAD year) undefeated in the Southeastern Conference-- a conference, by the way, that has sent a team to 5 out of the last 6 National Chamopnship games-- let me just go on record as saying I'm sick of all the whining. This year's matchup (Auburn v. Oregon) features two teams that without a doubt would trounce all other contenders. I long for the days when we made meaningful and significant complaints, like why oh why can't we go back to calling Bowl games by their non-coroporate-sponsor names?! Seriously, sports fans, R-E-S-P-E-C-T the S-E-C.

NFL Cries "Uncle!"
Professional football is a hard-hitting game. The men who play it are scientific specimens of human speed, strength and agility. The game itself is intricate and complex, and the sophistication of its players and coaches has grown at light-speed in the last decade. (Some experts, rightly in my mind, blame this on-- or credit it to-- the Madden NFL video game, which almost every player entering the league these days has already studied for over a decade.) It used to be the case that speed and smarts were found on the offensive side of the ball, while power and brute strength were found on the defensive side. But nowadays, defenses are a lot faster, a whole lot smarter, and just as strong. The result? Those occasional skull-rattling, clock-cleaning, bell-ringing hits that would make the highlights reel are so very, very common now that they're not even highlight-worthy. As are all the devastating injuries that come with those hits. So, finally -- much too late, really-- the NFL has decided to crack down on what they call "devastating hits." They're passing out fines and suspensions to some of the most egregious offenders, promising to do the same to first-time offenders. In my view, this is a LONG OVERDUE move, and I congratulate the NFL for not cowering to the meatheads who want to say that this kind of hard-hitting is just "part of the game." It's not part of the game. It's at the very least seriously injurious, and at the very worst lethal. We'll have to wait and see how the crack-down goes over with fans. (Watch an excellent and expert conversation about it here.) But at least the warning is out there: helmet-to-helmet hits are going to cost you, linebackers.

San Francisco Makes Giant Dreams Come True
Like I said before, this was definitely the Year of the Underdog. To the New Orleans Saints and the Butler Bulldogs, add the 2010 San Francisco Giants-- who won their first World Series ever by defeating the Texas Rangers this year. I really have to hand it to baseball fans, not only because they have the longest season and most intricately-structured playoff battles to withstand, but also for all of the doom and shame that has beset their otherwise glorious pasttime in the last decade. (See: steroids, asterisks) And Giants fans rank right up there with Cubs fans and (until just a few years ago) Red Sox fans as contendors for baseball's Wretched of the Earth title. But when it comes down to it, baseball is really the game where hope happens, after all. It's only in baseball that you find the most endearingly corny demonstrations (like this) by fans who have hardly ever been given a reason to remain fans. Prior to this year's victory, the Giants' unofficial team motto was "Giants baseball: Torture." So, congrats to another team of underdogs. As someone who grew up loving baseball, I found myself growing more and more disillusioned with the game by the mid-90's. Thank you, Giants and Giants fans, for reminding me what there is to love about the game. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

A Million Angry Bees Proclaim Love for The Beautiful Game
The World Cup really deserves a second mention in this list for contributing one of the most unlikely, virally infectious, pop-culture references of the year: the vuvuzela. If you watched the tournament, you probably still have that sound of a million angry bees buzzing in your head. If you didn't watch, the vuvuzela sounds like this. Yes, it was loud and annoying, even maddening, but what about sports fandom isn't? I have to end this Year in Sports list with the vuvuzela because you know, for all its faults, love it or hate it, the vuvuzela brought the world together for one whole month last summer. (For the record, it was really difficult to choose between the vuvuzela and the other awesomely-weird World Cup story "Paul the Octopus." Sadly, Paul died recently, so I went with the vuvuzela.) With all of the different languages and cultures and nationalities and races to negotiate, soccer fans needed something in common that could bridge those differences. Nothing like a cheap, obnoxiously loud, plastic horn to do it. As a long time fan of the air-horn, I really do hope that vuvuzelas come to take its place as the ultimate Inappropriate Thing To Bring To A Public Event.

And there it is. Dr. J's 2010 Year in Sports. Next up: the 2010 Year in Pop Culture.

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