The 2011 Year in Sports was a mostly "bad and ugly" one, and though 2012 had its fair share of bad and ugly stories, there are more "good" ones to weigh in the balance. I'll go ahead and note that I'm skipping stories about the major championships this year. For the record, though, the World Series Champions were the San Francisco Giants, the Super Bowl Champions were the New York Giants, the BCS Champions were the Alabama Crimson Tide and the NBA Playoff Champions were the Miami Heat. Of the major championships, there weren't especially gripping stories to tell, except for maybe the fact that Lebron James FINALLY got to kiss an NBA Championship trophy. And the fact that Eli Manning DID execute a pretty impressive fourth-quarter comeback in the Super Bowl. And I suppose it's a kind of cool story that the Super Bowl and the World Series were both won by "Giants." Still, even this year's Giant stories paled in comparison to 2012's other stories, which in many cases were truly Olympian.
In roughly chronological order, here is the 2012 Year in Sports:
The Penn State Aftermath: It's hard to imagine any year being worse than last year was for Penn State. But, just a few weeks into 2012, it was clear that things were already looking dark in Happy Valley. On Jan 22, longtime Nittany Lions football coach and Penn State legend Joe Paterno died of lung cancer. Then, in June, the long and tragic story of last year's scandal was rehashed, and a judgment finally passed, as former Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and sentenced to a maximum of 442 years in prison. A month later, in July, Penn State's internal investigation yielded the very damning Freeh Report, which pointed an accusatory finger at both Joe Paterno and senior Penn State administrators for their "callous and shocking" role in covering up Sandusky's actions. The final nail was driven into the coffin of this scandal shortly afterwards, also in July, when the NCAA delivered one of the harshest penalties in college sports history to Penn State: a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, a reduction of annual scholarships from 25 to 15, and five years' probation. The NCAA also vacated all Penn State football wins from 1998-2011, casting Paterno out of the history books as one of the winningest coaches in college football. In sum, 2012 was the year that Penn State paid the piper... and the piper was pissed. It will be a long and arduous road back to Penn State's former glory, both in terms of football and in terms of its reputation. Let's hope there is a lesson learned here somewhere.
Amazing Is Amazing In Any Color Jersey: Peyton Manning is, without a doubt, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. So, it came as a shock in March when the Indianapolis Colts cut Manning from their roster, on which he had served as the leader for fourteen years. Manning suffered several serious injuries in 2011 and the Colts feared he would never return, or would never return the same. Like champions do, though, Manning found another place to play. Less than two weeks after being released by the Colts, Manning announced that he would be joining the Denver Broncos. (Added bonus: Manning's selection forced the Broncos to trade Tim Tebow. Manning's alma mater is the University of Tennessee and Tebow's is UT arch-rival Florida. Many Vols fans saw a kind of poetic, if not also cosmic, justice at work in these events.) Just to put a bow on the whole story, Manning went on to be THE comeback player of the year. On the heels of his brother's Super Bowl win in January, Peyton's story made it clear that the Manning Dynasty still reigns.
A Legend Retires: University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is not only a Hall of Famer, but the recipient of an Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Oh, and she is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. Men's AND women's basketball history. In April, just a year after her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, she announced that she would be stepping-down as the coach of the Lady Vols. It's hard to exaggerate what Summit did not only for women's basketball, but for women's sports more generally. She was unrelenting in her demand for toughness and discipline-- her court-side scowl was legendary-- but she inspired dedication and excellence in her players. Championship-winning dedication and excellence. For years, the Lady Vols were the collegiate women's-basketball equivalent of the Yankees or the Patriots. They were a dynasty. And they owe it ALL to Pat Summitt.
BCS Finally Makes A Semi-Rational Decision: There's nothing that unites fans of college football more than disparaging the BCS, the governing organization that decides which team gets the title "National Champions" every year. Officially, the team that wins the BCS Championship Bowl Game is the National Champion, but understanding exactly how the two teams who play in that game got there requires not only a dizzying command of complex algorithms, conference alignments and coaches' preferences, but also probably a heavy toke of the wacky tobacky, too. Thus, almost every year there are teams who argue their "claim" to the National Champions title without winning (or, often, even playing in) the National Championship Game. The truth is, organizing a playoff series for college football is complicated for a variety of reasons. Because it's football, games can only be played once a week, so there's no cramming a 64-team playoff tournament into a few weeks like they do for basketball. And because it's college football, you can't have a playoff series that lasts several weeks (like the NFL) anyway. (These are students, after all, and some of them like to go to school, not to mention also home for the holidays.) Still, there has been growing discontentment with the current system for too many years. So the BCS announced that, starting in 2014, the top four teams will compete in a semi-finals playoff. Of course, all this really will accomplish is to give 4 or 5 more teams grounds for complaint. Whatevs. I'll just suggest again my solution to the BCS woes, which has two parts: (1) The SEC Conference winner should be named the National Champion every year, and (2) All the rest of the teams can compete for the Heisman Trophy, for which SEC players will be ineligible. Done and DONE.
Michael Phelps, Golden Boy: In the London Olympic Games this summer, swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian in history with an impressive 19 medals. Many people wondered whether or not the Phelps we saw in Beijing four years ago would be able to return with the same dominance. He had fallen out of shape, gotten into some trouble and (by his own account) lost some of his passion for the sport in the intervening years. But the worries were assuaged as soon as he jumped back into the pool, adding 11 more medals in London to the 8 he won in Beijing. It will likely be a long time, if ever, before we see another swimmer like Phelps, who announced that the London Games were his last. Well done, Golden Boy.
London Olympics Hit By A Lightning Bolt: Repeating his gold-medal performances in the 100m and 200m sprints from Beijing, Usain Bolt proved once again in London that he is the fastest human alive. His performance this past August made him the first person to win 100m and 200m gold in back-to-back Olympics. In fact, Bolt's performance in the 100m has only ever been beaten by one other person: Usain Bolt. If you didn't get to see it when it happened, it really is a feat to behold. Bolt runs with ease and confidence and, of course, inhuman speed, but what really made him an international star is the endearing braggadocio that he brings to every race. All I can say is: yeah, yeah, he's fast, but he should really be credited for his hilarious cameo on Saturday Night Live mocking Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan. You go, Bolt.
Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, Baby: Lordy, lordy, did the NFL "replacement refs" stink it up back in September! I mean, f'realz, STINK IT UP. Regular, professional referees catch a lot of flack for what they do, but nobody-and-I-mean-NOBODY realized how good we had it with the real zebras until the scabs showed up. In a Seahawks-Packers game in the third week of the season, two officials made a simultaneous call in the endzone: one called an interception, the other a touchdown. The image of that snafu is worth a thousand NSFW words. No better way to settle a labor dispute between the NFL and the regular officials than a blown call, apparently. By Week 4, justice had been restored on the football field and (presumably) the refs' bank accounts.
The Mighty Falls: For years, Lance Armstrong has been a living testament not only to how discipline, dedication and training can stretch the limits of human endurance and achievement, but also how the same can overcome the very worst that Nature deals the human body. Armstrong won one of sports' most grueling and demanding contests, cycling's Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005. Impressive as that was, it was overshadowed by his seemingly miraculous victory over brain. lung and testicular cancer. (The latter of those victories inspired the LiveStrong movement, which millions of people supported by wearing Armstrong's bracelets.) So, in August, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency finally stripped Armstrong of his Tour victories and banned him from the sport, it seemed hard to believe that a hero could have fallen so far, so hard and so ingloriously. Armstrong protested that he was innocent to the very end, and beyond, but the evidence against him was overwhelming and damning. What is more, it appears that the whole sport of cycling has been rotten to the core for many years. Armstrong is no doubt still, and has always been, an athlete of the most elite caliber... but we finally have to resign ourselves to the truth that his impossible performances were as much a credit to doping as they were to discipline.
Notre Dame Played Like A Champion This Season: I've never been much of a Notre Dame football fan, mostly because I don't like their we're-too-special-to-play-in-a-regular-conference nonsense, but I've always had a lot of respect for the long and storied history of that program. For the last decade or so, though, Notre Dame football hasn't been worthy of much respect. The 2012 season marks the return to glory for the Fighting Irish, and their first shot at a National Championship in a long, long time. As the season drew to a close, Notre Dame caught a lot of breaks from key losses by other contending teams, but that shouldn't cast a shadow over their right to play for the title. This is a solid team. Definitely not as solid as the 2nd- or 3rd- (or maybe even 4th-) place team in the SEC, but if it's not going to be an all-SEC BCS Championship this year, I think ND deserves to be the loser.
That's it for the 2012 Year in Sports. Next up: 2012 Year in Politics. Better put your seat-belts on now.