The sports headlines of 2012 burst onto the scene the way an alien once burst from the chest of John Hurt, killing its host and repulsing onlookers. To read the Associated Press’s list of “Sports Stories of the Year” is to be assaulted with a degree of crime, corruption and obscene villainy. The sports page has now become an unsettling funhouse mirror reflection of the chaos and heartbreak that now appears regularly on the front page.
The number-one sports story of the year was the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal and subsequent trial. Number two? Lance Armstrong having his titles, his trophies and his tailored reputation methodically stripped away. Long rumored, the details of his own cheating were joined by a wave of testimony that he pressured other, less willing riders to jump on his golden syringe.
Number three was the horror of “learning” that the NFL’s New Orleans Saints put bounties out on opposing players, only to have these charges, to the great embarrassment of Commissioner Roger Goodell, revealed as groundless. Players like Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Scott Fujita were scapegoated for the endemic violence in the game and had their reputations attacked in the absence of evidence. Goodell was humiliated when his predecessor Paul Tagliabue looked at the evidence and struck down all suspensions while also, quizzically, endorsing Goodell’s original findings. It’s an open question whether enough people were still paying attention to know that Bountygate was built on a foundation of lies.
Speaking of “great embarrassment suffered by Roger Goodell,” the number-four story is listed by the Associated Press as “NFL concussions.” That broad umbrella would include the growing class action lawsuit of now 4,000 former players, the suicides of four current and former NFL vets and the possibility of head injuries being an aggravating factor in the murder-suicide case of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. The number-five story may seem cheerier: the London Olympics. But part of what made this iteration of the Olympiad a story wasn’t just Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas. It was the cost overruns and the bloated, malfunctioning security apparatus. It was that gunship in the Thames and the missile launchers on the residential rooftops of the East End. It wasn’t just the party—it was the wicked hangover.
I asked my personal sports writing Yoda, longtime New York Times scribe Robert Lipsyte, about what the prominence in 2012 of such disheartening, depressing and even venal sports stories represents. He said, “If there ever was an escape into the fantasies of SportsWorld, it’s been sealed off by the realization that the top stories are [those] that doctors, officials, and most of the sports media chose to ignore. The most serious stories, Penn State and concussions, are really about child abuse. The culpability of Sandusky, Paterno, et al. is obvious. More pernicious is the way parents and coaches have been letting kids bang helmets for so many years, thousands of little brain insults that I’m sure add up to damages beyond our imagination.”
Of greater concern to Lipsyte than the myriad scandals is the issue of how they are discussed and processed by the public. As he said, “Sports are us, so political and personal that the yammering of most sportswriters and sportscasters may be far more dangerous than the posturing of the news clowns.” He’s right. I was listening to ESPN radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning and the two genial hosts were expressing their disgust with the AP’s list. They didn’t disagree that these were the top stories, but felt the whole thing was just too dark, too sad, too filled with downers and not nearly enough sunshine and lollipops. Mike and Mike decided to come up with a happy list, but their happy list was, at least to me, even more depressing than the selections made by the Associated Press. Their top three choices were Penn State football’s surprisingly successful 8-4 season, in the shadow of the Sandusky verdict and Joe Paterno’s death; the way NFL players Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson have come back from horrific injuries to post MVP-caliber seasons; and just how “inspiring” former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand has become after being paralyzed on the field of play.
The absence of critical thought boggles the mind. To celebrate Penn State’s season, to see them as an inspiring story, is also to revel in the speed with which success on the football field makes people forget the suffering that took place off the field. It revels in the very culture that allowed Sandusky and Paterno to stay shielded from scrutiny for so long. As for Peterson and Manning, they are being celebrated for recovering from major football injuries, even though that’s the exception and not the rule. Their inspiring recoveries obscure a far darker truth than they reveal. Then there is Eric LeGrand. He is a brilliant young man whose refusal to be defeated by paralysis is incredibly inspiring. But for love of God, it shouldn’t inspire people like Mike and Mike to revel in the greatness of football. That’s like saying a high-speed traffic accident really makes you appreciate just how fast your car can go from zero to 65 mph.
Our sports broke this year. They self-destructed under the twin weights of greed and a bloated sports media conditioned to look the other way. There is a real crisis when our entertainments no longer entertain and our sweet distractions turn sour. Even the NFL has seen ratings drop 5 percent over the last two years. The Sports World may have broken in 2012, but that doesn’t mean it will magically heal: not when the same people who snapped its legs, instead of seeing a crisis, can only marvel that they still have 204 bones to go.