Even after all the turmoil 2011 brought to sports, what with the NBA and NFL players and owners huddling with lawyers and accountants, more unsettling reports of brains ravaged by hard hits, and college players being given cash, tattoos, access to strip clubs and pretty much anything else you can imagine, the games still mattered.
In less than two weeks, allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State and then at Syracuse shook both schools to the core, cost Joe Paterno his job and left us all with the searing question of whether our love for sports has helped corrupt what were once such simple games.
“I think there is a disillusionment there, but I think it’s reality. We haven’t seen behind the curtain before,” said Jarrod Chin, the director for training and curriculum at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “We’ve used sport as a way to ignore problems. But now what we’re seeing is they exist there, too.
“That’s what makes it the worst year in sports. What people are coming to realize is the thing we thought was such a great escape has a lot of the same issues we’re trying to escape from.”
In sports, most years are defined by their triumphs. Golf’s latest phenom, Rory McIlroy, winning his first major at the U.S. Open, perhaps. Or Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers following up their Super Bowl victory by flirting with a perfect season. Maybe Novak Djokovic’s utter dominance of the tennis world.
Even in years tainted by steroids or labor strife, there was always someone or some performance that stood tall. Not this year.
The lasting memories of 2011 will be of mug shots and court rooms, millionaires squabbling with billionaires, and big red Xs drawn through the first two months of the NBA schedule. Sixteen games were pared off each NBA team’s schedule because of drawn-out labor negotiations, while the NFL wasted its summer vacation in conference rooms and mediation sessions.
“We have this arena where sport is pure, sport has been sanitized,” said Gary Sailes, a professor of sport sociology at Indiana University. “That’s just not the case.”
That illusion was shattered for good by the charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator and one-time Paterno heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
Once cherished in the Penn State community for his ferocious defenses and apparent devotion to at-risk children, Sandusky now faces more than 50 charges of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 12-year span. Prosecutors say Sandusky used his Nittany Lions connections to groom his victims, and some of the alleged assaults occurred on Penn State property.
Sandusky has denied the allegations, telling NBC and The New York Times that he showered and horsed around with boys but never sexually abused them. An emotional and lurid trial is a safe bet for 2012.
The shock of the initial charges quickly turned to anger as details emerged that Penn State officials knew of an alleged assault in 2002 but never called police.
And it wasn’t just Penn State. The very next week, two former ball boys accused longtime Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine of molesting them.
Bobby Davis, now 39, told ESPN that Fine molested him beginning in 1984 and that the sexual contact continued until he was around 27. A ball boy for six years, Davis said that the abuse occurred at Fine’s home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.
Davis’ stepbrother, Lang, 45, who also was a ball boy, told ESPN that Fine began molesting him while he was in fifth or sixth grade.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was defiant in his initial defense of Fine, his top assistant since 1976, dismissing Davis and Long as opportunistic liars looking to capitalize on the misery at Penn State. But Boeheim’s tone changed after ESPN aired a tape Nov. 27 in which a woman it identified as Fine’s wife tells Davis she knew “everything” that was going on. Syracuse fired Fine that day.
Davis and Lang are suing Boeheim and Syracuse for defamation. And the district attorney in Syracuse has said the two are credible but that Fine cannot be charged because the statute of limitations has expired.
Federal authorities are still investigating claims by a third accuser. A fourth man, a prison inmate in New York state, also has accused Fine of abuse starting decades ago.
There also were plenty of scandals that, any other year, would have seemed reprehensible.
The NCAA came down on Ohio State, slapping the Buckeyes with that dreaded “failure to monitor” tag, banning them from a bowl game in 2012 and reducing scholarships for a series of misdeeds that had already cost former coach Jim Tressel his job and forced some players to sit out games this season.
Miami is sitting out the bowl season in hopes of sparing itself similar pain from the NCAA, which is investigating allegations a booster gave cash, cars, yacht rides, access to strip clubs, even prostitutes, to 72 athletes over a nine-year span. Twelve Hurricanes have already been punished by the NCAA, with penalties ranging from making restitution to lengthy suspensions.
Southern California was stripped of its 2004 BCS title in June for the shenanigans involving Reggie Bush, and defending champion Auburn and runner-up Oregon had to spend some quality time with NCAA investigators after questions about players’ eligibility. And don’t forget Tennessee, Boise State, Connecticut, West Virginia, Michigan, LSU and North Carolina, all of whom wound up on the NCAA’s naughty list this year.
“We have had a heck of a year of scandals and disruptions,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said. “To have really good success on the one hand and all these grenades blowing up has been frustrating.”
NFL and NBA spent months watching players and owners bicker as they tried to divvy up their billion-dollar industries.
But at least the NFL had the good sense to settle its labor war before any of the season was lost. The NBA will finally tip off on Christmas Day after reaching an agreement on a 10-year deal that, so far, seems only to have produced more gripes.
The NBA locked the players out for 161 days, insisting a new deal was necessary because owners were losing buckets of money – $300 million last season alone and hundreds of millions more in the years before that.
The NHL dealt with a rash of concussion-related issues and learned of the sobering details of the deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien.
Auto racing mourned the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who was killed Oct. 16 in a fiery, 15-car wreck in the opening laps of the IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas. It was IndyCar’s first fatality in five years.
Troubling events in a year seemed filled with little else.
“In our society we create these myths around athletes and athletics,” said Sport in Society’s Chin. “But they’re myths, and that’s the whole issue.”