Children Provide Hope as Inglorious Year Ends
The patron saint of Nike, aka Michael Jordan, continues to show his relevance as it pertains to consumers and sports fans, even though he's been competitively irrelevant for 13 years. Dozens of riotous incidents have erupted around the country in recent days, resulting in injuries and property damage, all because of clueless throngs lining up to buy the latest "limited-edition" release of throwback Air Jordan sneakers from that Oregon snake oil conglomerate.
One couldn't conjure up a more pathetic yet fitting end to this decidedly ignominious year in sports.
Of course, every Christmas season brings the ubiquitous lists - best of, worst of, Top 10 moments of, and Santa Claus naughty and nice tallies (which RCS colleague Jeff Neuman always does a fine job of compiling).
Sure enough, there were some genuine moments of sporting transcendence in 2011: Novak Djokovic's miracle comeback against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semis; Game 6 of the World Series, which was one of those rare occasions to which the word "epic" is appropriately ascribed; the continued greatness of skier Lindsey Vonn; and golfer Darren Clarke, one of the good guys, winning a major at 43.
But even with those and other incandescent flashes, the dominant themes in sports in 2011 were: criminality, tiresome - and tireless - egotism; cowardice; and the always present companions, arrogance and greed.
There was the beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium. Bernie Fine and Bill Conlin. The fight during the Xavier-Cincinnati game. The pathetic and cowardly taunting of Tim Tebow by the Detroit Lions. The utter avarice of the NBA, players and owners alike. National League MVP Ryan Braun testing positive for a banned substance (though Braun's defense may prove valid if recent reports are accurate).
And then there are those actions that are so institutionalized and accepted that they hardly elicit attention anymore. Like the childish, banal showboating displays put on by NFL players after nearly every play. Or Bud Selig continuing to force the issue of expanded playoffs, watering down further baseball's regular season and grafting an NFL-like mold onto the postseason.
Yet Penn State is the one story that overshadows all others. Jerry Sandusky's alleged path of destruction through the innocence of countless children encapsulated in gruesome terms the essence of what is wrong with our society.
From the cult-of-personality aspect of our culture, which is dangerously encroaching on and threatening our collective wisdom and instincts, to the seeming epidemic of moral vacancy across all strata, the Penn State tragedy is not only the sports story for 2011 but perhaps the American news event of the year.
"Why continue to go on about Penn State?" "Will you not be happy until Penn State is physically demolished?" "Why are you and others in the media prejudging Sandusky? I thought we were in America." These are but a few of the questions I've been asked by readers since the Penn State scandal broke.
My immediate reply is: How can writers not comment about this all-important story, considering how far-reaching its tentacles are? Too often we attack a story with great vigor and tenacity but then let the inevitable cycle of interest carry it off rapidly into the past, and it's never brought up again.
This can't happen with the Penn State story. It's that important, if for no other reason that the exposure of such vile actions can maybe, just maybe, effect change. There's already an example of this, as those who have accused Philadelphia columnist Bill Conlin of sexual abuse said they were emboldened by the alleged victims at Penn State.
And since it is Christmas, and the holiday is really all about kids, it's also a perfect time to think about how to reinstill the true values of sport to the next generation - for instance, ridding this trophy-for-showing-up mentality that's been entrenched for a couple of generations. We need to tell our kids that there will always be someone faster, stronger or simply better. And that's OK.
Or repeating ad nauseam to our children that the boastful refrains of superstar athletes indicate a lack of integrity. Or teaching them that the frequent boredom of sports - especially baseball - punctuated by thrilling moments is the most apt analogy for life itself.
The enthusiasm kids have for sports is infectious. It can serve as an antidote to the venom coursing through sports' veins.
Speaking of kids, my favorite sports moment of 2011 took place on a muggy New York evening in September when, upon returning home to Manhattan from covering the U.S. Open, I was greeted by my 2-year-old. He proudly swung his arms, imitating a forehand, and gazed up at me, seeking my acknowledgment of his efforts. Yes, I thought, this is why I care about sports.