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2011 -- the year in review

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If regrettably and mostly for all the wrong reasons, 2011 was a landmark-year in Sport. While no stats are kept on this subject, it is reasonable to suggest there has never been another that featured more rancor, tumult, controversy, scandal, and downright embarrassment. In balance, it was deplorable.

Is it that the games are never that much out of step with the rest of society? There wasn't all that much to crow about in what's loosely termed 'the Real World' either, you may have noticed. Few would dispute there have been times when the mood of the Republic has been far more conducive to merriment.

Or is it simply that sports has become blighted with the burdens of all the other market places, and therefore no longer has ''the right stuff'' to serve as a nice escape, let alone the right to presume to do so? Maybe both points have merit. Whatever the case, they combined this year in something of a perfect storm.

What might you say was the biggest sports story of the year 2011?

Was it the labor disputes that ran for months and hobbled two of our biggest games? With unemployment running at more than nine percent hereabouts and the entire world teetering on the brink of financial ruin the spectacle of billionaire owners bickering with millionaire athletes seemed rather more disgraceful than usual.

The NFL lockout was nasty. Things were said that won't be forgiven; enmities forged that could last. The fuss dragged on six months eating into the pre-season, which was no great loss, until the owners won, which was no great surprise. Bob Kraft, genial owner of the Patriots, got much credit for brokering the ultimate deal. He did so without personally alienating the players which suggests either that Kraft is a genius or the players are stupid.

The NBA lockout was different. It lacked the passion of the NFL dispute or maybe it was just dumber. It wasn't always precisely clear just what they were arguing about although it had vaguely everything to do with money. Once again, it was the players who finally blinked but not until they'd blown up a quarter of the regular season. The owners, a majority of whom declared they'd rather go out of business than even think compromise, didn't seem to give a hoot. A half century ago, the late Wilt Chamberlain called the NBA ''a bush league''. It hasn't changed much.

But college sport -- principally football -- was even more of a mess. In mid-December, the Boston Globe ran a headline that bellowed, "Big-time College Sport Hits All-time low." It might have been an understatement.

Ethical disputes related to the recruiting, maintaining, care, and feeding of athletes brought shame to such historically prominent powerhouses as Miami, Alabama, USC, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio State among too many others. Heads rolled. The two most celebrated recent Heisman winners -- Reggie Bush and Cam Newton -- were revealed to have been cheats, with Bush being forced to give the thing back, an unprecedented rebuke.

Still, big-bucks continued to bury the entire scene. New billion dollar TV deals were struck. The rush by major football schools to enrich themselves further became downright hysterical with major conferences being shuffled overnight creating bizarre arrangements as the NCAA -- growing ever fatter and richer -- stood by and did nothing. It got ugly, although maybe something was gained by having the hypocrisies of the collegiate behemoths get exposed, at long last.

Against this sordid backdrop, the devastating scandal of sexual abuse bringing colossal shame to the prestigious universities of Penn State and Syracuse may prove to be the last straw. Is it definitive evidence of the institutional power of sports being abominably out of control at schools where the programs are sacred and the coaches are infallible?

Many believe so. For it is being fast revealed that the cover-up of the major crimes committed was aimed entirely at protecting the programs and preserving the riches they reap. The fact that along the way a living myth like Joe Paterno was high among the casualties will, in the end, prove necessary and just, which even misguided undergrads should eventually manage to grasp. At year's end, the key question is, "Where does what began at Penn State lead, and when does it end"? The possibilities are frightening.

If sports were your thing in 2011, you needed tutorials in law, medicine, sociology, psychology, finance, even religion to keep up with its myriad ins and outs. Among other troublesome issues inveighing upon the scene were violence, drug abuse, and financial catastrophe.

In the NHL, the incidence of concussions surged into a full-blown epidemic. Six all-stars went down in a single week. Concussion terminated the career of the Bruins' Marc Savard and when the NHL's anointed poster-boy, Sid "the Kid" Crosby, was felled a second time in less than a year, the issue's severity at last got everyone's attention. Adding to the alarm was the revelation that the pre-mature death of four ex-NHL tough guys can be medically linked to brain damage likely caused by pro-hockey's heavy hits and thumps. Increasingly, the very essence of the way the game is played is being called into question.

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