Friday, December 16, 2011

2011 Year in Sports

Oh what a difference a year makes! After the mostly feel-good festival that was the 2010 Year in Sports, I regret to report that much of Sportsdom-- athletes, coaches, owners AND fans-- found their way onto Team FUBAR in 2011. Sure, there were some Good moments, but they were so overshadowed by the Bad and the Ugly that the 2011 Year in Sports looked about a bearish as the economy. Big, Bad, Ugly Bear.

It's hard not to long for last year's stories-- the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants, or the NCAA bracket-busting Butler Bulldogs, or the Superbowl champs New Orleans Saints, or even good old Landon Donovan-- but 2011 just wasn't delivering those kinds of stories. Instead, we got scandals and lockouts and scandals and indictments and scandals and controversies and scandals and riots and SCANDALS. Seriously, 2011 was F.U.B.A.R. To avoid a thoroughly gloom-and-doom list, I've decided to split this year's sports headlines into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It should go without saying that "Ugly" is a euphemism in what follows.

Here's THE GOOD for the 2011 Year in Sports:

Lombardi Trophy Returns Home To Green Bay
The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV back in January, after only barely making it into the playoffs. The victory was especially sweet, not only for all of those who wanted to see ex-Packer Bret Favre get his come-uppance, but also for everyone who fell in love with the Little Quarterback That Could, Aaron Rodgers. The Packers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 31-25 and brought home the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which they were the first team to ever win and which is named after the legendary Packers coach. It looks like last year's victory wasn't a fluke, either, as the Packers are looking at the possibility of going undefeated this year and finally busting the record held by the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Go Pack!

Give Me Some Pujols And Cracker Jacks
The World Series champs Saint Louis Cardinals weren't quite the story that last year's San Francisco Giants were, but they sure provided one of the most exciting end-of-season runs in a long time. The Cards didn't win their Division, and they needed a complete meltdown by the Atlanta Braves just to make it to the playoffs. The Braves melted-- in a truly EPIC choke-- and the Cards rode that good luck all the way through their Series against the much-favored Texas Rangers. The Cards trailed 6-2 going into the bottom of the seventh inning in Game Six. They were down to their last strike-- not once, BUT TWICE-- and somehow managed to eke out the trophy anyway. This year the darling player was Albert Pujols. He's no Brian Wilson... but, then again, who is?

Tim Tebow Proves God Really Is On His Side
Whatever reservations one may have about Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow-- his overt religiosity, his sub-par athletic ability, his mediocre stats, and that god-awful performance against the Lions earlier this season-- there's just no denying that the kid's somehow managing to do alright. Against all NFL conventional wisdom, Tebow seems to be getting 'er done for the Broncos, and it appears that he really is the "leader" that made him the darling of Florida fans. Oh, and did I mention that he loves Jesus? He does. A LOT. At the end of the day, it's his faith that has made him such a lightning rod for (both positive and negative) attention. But whatever else you may think of mixing Christianity and football, all evidence points to the fact that Tim Tebow is a "Good" guy... and he's turning out to be a pretty good NFL player, too.

Memphis Is All Heart, Grit, Grind
Back in the Spring, our little NBA franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies, inspired an entire city with their (in the words of Tony Allen) heart, grit and grind. Memphis is, and has always been, a basketball town. But we suffered quite a blow a couple of years ago when the University of Memphis Tigers lost the NCAA Championship and legendary coach John Calipari left town under a cloud of recruiting violations. Memphis is a town with a lot of problems-- poverty, crime, high infant mortality rates, epic health problems, racial tensions-- and to top it all off we got hit with a major natural disaster this year. So it couldn't have come at a better time when, in April/May, the Grizzlies decided to take the hopes and dreams of the whole city on their backs in an unlikely march through the NBA playoffs. It was exciting. It was unifying. It was magical. The whole city was plastered with the logo of the Grizzlies' run: BELIEVE MEMPHIS. In a town where it's often hard to believe in good things, the Grizz were a godsend. Thank you, Zach Randolph, most of all for showing your love to the working class town that loves you back.

And here's THE BAD for the 2011 Year in Sports:

NBA and NFL Won't Play Ball
Both the professional basketball and the professional football seasons were almost cancelled in 2011 because players and owners couldn't come to contract agreements. In professional sports, these are called "lockouts," but they should be called "pissing contests." Of course, nobody really believed that the seasons wouldn't go on, just like nobody really believes that the government will "shut down" every time the pols in DC threaten it. Still, things looked pretty hairy there for a while. The NFL ended up reaching a 12th-hour deal, but the NBA delayed their season by several weeks and have only just now started playing games. Fans were justifiably irked at the drama, a fact that seemed entirely lost on the players and owners. I mean, who cares about the fans, after all? They only pay the bills.

Show Me The Money

In October, the Atlantic published a devastating exposé of the Big Business of NCAA sports. It laid waste to the prevailing delusion of the "student-athlete," crunched the numbers of college sports profits, and not-so-subtly suggested that D1 colleges and universities are basically supporting themselves with slave labor. Student-athletes, many of whom are African-American and all of whom are forbidden from collective bargaining in their own interest, generate billions of dollars for colleges, universities, and private companies every year. Some of them get a free education in return, the value of which is nowhere near what they're "paying" for it with their talent and the risks they're taking to their bodies and reputations. It's really no wonder that Ohio State student-athletes and University of Miami student-athletes have turned to illicit entrepreneurship, nor should those 2011 "scandals" come as a surprise to anyone. (I've weighed in on the whole question of paying student-athletes before on this blog here.) The collusion between colleges and private business, and the unwillingness of college Presidents and AD's to own up to that collusion, only makes the whole business more unseemly. The Atlantic article was penned by (Pulitzer Prize-winning) Taylor Branch, a scholar of civil rights, which lends the whole story exactly the right tenor. What's going on in college sports is about rights. And it's not right.

Conference Realignments Likely Will Solve Nothing
The soap opera that is college football got a little stranger this year with the announcement of several major conference realignments. The (BCS dominant) Southeastern Conference agreed to take on two new teams (Texas A&M and Missouri). The Pac-10 became the Pac-12 with the addition of Colorado and Utah. The Big Ten is still the Big Ten, only now it has 12 teams, with Nebraska as the newest member. The Big East was decimated, with Syracuse moving to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12. Why should anyone care? Because all of these moves are just maneuvers in the chase for the the Big Television Dollar, which remains tightly clutched in the greasy, grimy paw of the the NCAA and its minion, the BCS. Nobody involved in these changes cares about "parity" in college conferences, even less so about the sports these changes are affecting, nor do they care about the main concern of fans (i.e., finding a reasonable way to determine national "champions.") This is entirely, exclusively, about the money. In other words, see story above.

Mayweather Suckerpunches Ortiz
Despite the fact that the punch Floyd Mayweather, Jr. delivered to Victor Ortiz was completely legal, it sure looked bad. For four rounds, Mayweather had been delivering Ortiz a sound beating. With only a few seconds left in the fourth, Ortiz headbutted Mayweather, causing referee Joe Cortez to momentarily stop the fight. When it resumed, Ortiz approached Mayweather in what looked like a conciliatory gesture-- Ortiz tried to touch gloves and embrace Mayweather-- only to be met with straight right hand to the face. Knockout. Fireworks ensued in the post-fight interviews, with Mayweather defending himself and calling for his critics, especially HBO sportscaster Larry Merchant, to be fired. (Merchant's reply: "If I was 50 years younger, I would have kicked your [expletive].") A fair fight is a fair fight, of course, but if you looked up "suckerpunch" in the dictionary, the accompanying picture would look a lot like the one here.

Dan Wheldon Dies In IndyCar Season Finale
IndyCar racing is a dangerous sport, everyone knows. I'm one of those people that doesn't understand the appeal of auto racing at all, and when I saw the video of 33-yr-old racer Dan Wheldon's fatal crash the whole sport became even more unintelligible to me. Wheldon had won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 and was, by all accounts, on the rise. Such a sad and tragic story. The skill and speed with which these drivers handle more than a thousand pounds of steel, at distances of sometimes inches from one another, is truly remarkable. Is it wise? I don't think so. The complicated relationship between Man and his Machines is often inspiring, sometimes puzzling. This time it was truly, deeply saddening.

Last (and least), here is THE UGLY for the 2011 Year In Sports. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone, but all of The Ugly concerns Penn State:

WE ARE... Shamed
Full disclosure: I'm a Penn State alum. I'm also a college football fan. There are very few institutions in higher education that are more synonymous with football than Penn State. So, when the news broke that one of Penn State's former assistant football coaches, Jerry Sandusky, was accused of sexually abusing young boys over a twenty year period, I personally felt shame. The story quite literally sent shock waves through the entire sports world. Sandusky allegedly used his influence as one of the directors of a program for troubled youth, The Second Mile, to prey upon and molest children, some of the incidents allegedly taking place inside of Penn State's athletic facilities. What's worse, it appears as if the administration at Penn State had been alerted to Sandusky's misdeeds and chose to cover them up in order to maintain the integrity of the football program and the Penn State brand. The fall-out of what is now being called the "Penn State Sex Scandal"-- who would have ever imagined we'd hear those words together?-- was severe and far-reaching. Penn State President Graham Spanier and head football coach (and living legend) Joe Paterno were fired. Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice Presdident Gary Schultz stepped down after being indicted for perjuring themselves to a grand jury. Penn State launched its own investigatory committee and is till paddling desperately upstream against public opinion. This was a story that just got worse with every new bit of news. The real tragedy, of course, was the damage done to the young boys that Sandusky abused. But the collusion and coverup by top Penn State officials drew back the curtain on the ugly beast that is Division 1 college sports.

Joe Paterno Should Be Ashamed
There's just no way to exaggerate the legendary status of Joe Paterno in college football. JoePa, as he is affectionately known in Happy Valley, was the mastermind behind and architect of Penn State football program's "Grand Experiment," which emphasized academic discipline and personal integrity on the part of student-athletes. His philanthropic contributions to Penn State are immense; the Penn State library is named after him. And he is the winningest coach in college football history. His thick, 50's-era eyeglasses, his sneakers and his ornery-but-lovable affect are as iconic in the Penn State imagination as the nondescript, nameless jerseys he insisted his players wear. JoePa is the face of Penn State, and has been for almost a half-century. So, if the reports are true that he basically punted after being made aware of Sandusky's alleged rape of a young boy in the Penn State locker room, he should be ashamed. And we should be ashamed of him. The embarrassment of his exit won't erase all the good he did over the years. It can't and it shouldn't. But it will remain a stain on Penn State and on JoePa's legacy forever. And that's a real shame.

Penn State Students Show No Shame
Lest one think the Penn State scandal couldn't get any worse, a throng of students stepped in after the announcement of Joe Paterno's dismissal and rioted. The rioters clashed with police, destroyed downtown State College, and overturned a television news van. All while chanting their support for Joe Paterno. There's just no other way to describe this display of Penn State "pride" than as deeply shameful. The student rioters should be ashamed, for they have shamed all of us. There are over 500,000-- that's right, a half million-- living Penn State alums. I'm one of them. Penn State cultivated in me, like it does all of its charges, a sense of being a part of a larger community, the Penn State community. I've been in places far, far away from Happy Valley and heard someone shout "WE ARE" and, no matter what else I may think of groupthink, I can't help but say "Penn State," even if it's only to myself. Penn State has always been a "we," warts and all. I suppose that, in the most generous evaluation, that communal sensibility and loyalty to Penn State is part of what motivated the students who rioted on that night in November. But they should have known better. We are not that "we."

So that's about it for the 2011 Year in Sports. I'm sure there are some things I've overlooked, so the comments section is open for your contributions. Stay tuned for the next list: 2011 Year in Politics. Oh, it's gonna be a good one.

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