By Rick Morris
Sports saw some great highs on the fields, courts and ice in 2011, but even more profound lows off the grounds of competition. It may have been the single worst year in history for the great sport of hockey, losing NHL players in their youth and an entire planeload of hockey heroes in Russia. Sadly and typically, since ESPN does not carry the NHL, they chose not to take note of the hockey losses in their year-end coverage of the sports landscape’s losses.
^ Next to the pain of the hockey world from seeing so many vital young men passing on (and others in the sports world who did as well, including Dan Wheldon), clearly, the worst story was the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State. The story exploded with high-level indictments that hit the wires on Saturday, November 5, which just happened to be a bye week for the Nittany Lions. This was one week after Joe Paterno passed the great Eddie Robinson to become the winningest coach in college football history and literally nobody watching that scene could conceive that Paterno would be fired before he could set foot on the field. But the scandal mushroomed and the fact that Paterno did not step forward to the authorities with what he knew in 2002 cost him his job by November 9 – 22 years almost to the hour of the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the same year as the fall of Mubarak, Gaddafi, Kim Jong-il and bin Laden. This is not to compare Paterno to any tyrants, not at all, but merely to demonstrate how quickly the world could change in 2011. From there, Syracuse assistant hoops coach Bernie Fine and Philadelphia sportswriter Bill Conlin were enveloped by similar accusations. Years after child sexual abuse was unveiled in the Catholic Church and in youth hockey, it came into the sports mainstream as never before.
^ On a lesser note, “standard-issue” scandals continued to envelope college sports, with Ohio State’s Tat 5 matter shockingly claiming the coaching job of Jim Tressel (with Urban Meyer taking the job late in the year, a huge development for Big 10 football in the years to come) and causing harsh NCAA sanctions. Reports of Miami football players being wined and dined via yachts and other measures shocked the public before being swept under the carpet. Jim Calhoun’s third NCAA basketball championship at UConn was also tarnished by rules violations. While restrictions were being enforced – to varying degrees – on violators taking money illicitly, no such restrictions were placed on institutions playing “franchise free agency” with conference realignment, which continued the rampage of the past few years and will linger at least through 2012.
^ The NFL and NBA lockouts threatened to wipe out entire seasons, but in the end, the only regular-season games lost constituted the first 20% of the NBA season. Changes were made in both sports, but because the owners did not achieve total victory in either instance (by sacrificing seasons), some issues of competitive imbalance remain. MLB, conversely, quietly signed a contract extension late in the year, proving remarkably to have the most stable labor situation in Big Four sports in America. Then again, in baseball, the players call the shots and there is no version yet of a salary cap, so when medium and small-market owners blindly accept their fate, labor peace does not have to be elusive.
^ The red-hot run of Green Bay through to the Super Bowl carried over to the 2011-12 season, as they made a great run at an undefeated regular season before going down late. Aaron Rodgers’ super-charged offense was emblematic of league trends as a whole, as Drew Brees surpassed Dan Marino’s vaunted single-season record for passing yards and Cam Newton put up one of the best years for a rookie QB ever. And in a story every bit as reflective of pop culture as it was of sports, Tim Tebow led Denver through a huge late-season run despite lingering difficulties in conventional quarterbacking, a team that was winning games in difficult-to-fathom fashion and an offense best compared to rugby.
^ In individual sports, it appeared at least on the surface to be a year of transition, as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Tiger Woods gave way to Novak Djokovic and a crop of golfing young lions led by Rory McIlroy. The older stars surely have some life left in them (imagine lumping Woods in with that group!), but 2011 demonstrated that their trips back to the top of the mountain will be fewer and further between.
^ The purest feel-good story in big-time sports came in the NBA Finals, when a season’s worth of worldwide enmity richly deserved by the Miami Heat came crashing down on their heads with a LeBron James-induced choke of the championship to Dallas. Also on the court, another inspiring moment came in the Final Four, when an unprecedented two mid-majors – Butler in a shocking return performance from the previous year and Virginia Commonwealth – won their regional championships to make it there. The subsequent college hoops season started with a bigger-than-usual influx of elite talent, as the NBA lockout scared many would-be top lottery talents into spending another year on the college hardwood.
^ The greatest sports dynasty of the past few years came crumbling down in November, as Jimmie Johnson’s attempt for a record sixth NASCAR season championship ended at the hands of past champ Tony Stewart.
^ A decent but fairly nondescript MLB season shockingly climaxed with what was probably the greatest slate of action in regular-season history. In the first season since baseball moved off of the traditional Sunday close to Wednesday night, September 28 saw a series of thrilling games that led to, among other things, Atlanta and Boston culminating their historic chokes and making way in the postseason for St. Louis and Tampa Bay. The Phillies, entering October as the biggest favorites since the turn-of-the-century Yankees, then contributed another shocker by bowing out to the red-hot Cards. The month as a whole continued to stake a claim as one of the best in the history of the sport as Texas and St. Louis met in the first seven-game World Series in nine years. Like any modern Fall Classic that makes a short list of the all-time best, this one had a game for the ages (Game Six) just like 1975 (Game Six), 1991 (Game Six), 1997 (Game Seven), 2001 (Game Seven) and 2002 (Game Seven). The St. Louis win validated the approach of keeping Albert Pujols through the end of his contract (in a way that Milwaukee keeping Prince Fielder and Texas retaining CJ Wilson did not), although Pujols would shortly be out the door and bound for Anaheim. The postseason also saw some of the most accomplished front office and managerial talents of their generation moving on, as Boston GM Theo Epstein took over the Chicago Cubs, Terry Francona entered the quit/fired vortex in Beantown and Tony LaRussa decided to retire on top.
^ Hockey’s horrible year, symbolized by the aforementioned string of deceased players, the Sidney Crosby concussion/post-concussion issue that sidelined one of the game’s top stars for most of the year and the post-Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, was counter-balanced slightly by the seven-game Final with wild swings between Boston and Vancouver that preceded the unrest. The series featured some blowouts both ways, but featured two of the top hockey markets in North America, returned the Stanley Cup to the Original Six Bruins after 39 years and cemented first-ballot Hall of Fame status for one of the game’s great defensemen, Zdeno Chara.