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.”