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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.

Baseball's steroid/PED calamity that refuses to go away claimed new victims. In his sad demise, Manny Ramirez got caught again and suspended for 50 games. More stunning was the fall of Ryan Braun, the NL's MVP and highly respected exemplar. He's currently appealing. Barry Bonds got convicted of covering up his steroid habit, but escaped going to jail. The stupidity of federal prosecutors got Roger Clemens off the hook. But this government never quits. Clemens must defend himself again next year.

Six professional franchises had to be rescued from near bankruptcy and collapse; three in hockey, two in baseball, one in basketball. Most embarrassing were the meltdowns of the flagship franchise LA Dodgers, thanks to the monumental folly of Frank McCourt; and NY Mets, thanks to their owner's romance with Bernie Madoff. ''Money madness'' was ever an issue, culminating in Albert Pujols mind-boggling 10-year, $254 million contract, earning for Angels' owner Arte Moreno the much-coveted ''One Dumb Owner of the Year'' award.

All of which in its accumulated weight and heavy baggage tended to overshadow what happened on the fields, courts, rinks, rings and lawns of play. But we did have redeeming moments.

The Green Bay Packers were pleasing champs of Football with stalwart QB Aaron Rodgers emerging as the game's new golden boy. On an even more fetching level Tim Tebow won great acclaim for simply having the courage of his convictions. The Mavericks, led by the high-riding Hun, Dirk Nowitzki, were popular NBA champs mainly because they spared us the odious spectacle of unpopular Miami winning it.

After barely making the playoffs, the Cardinals went all the way in baseball, with their wildly dramatic but messy defeat of the Rangers being widely proclaimed as ''historic'', which was nonsense. Recall, their winning rally was composed of three walks, two hit-batsmen, and a wild pitch. Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit. Mariano Rivera set the saves' record. Justin Verlander and Steve Kemp were superb. Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo made the Hall of Fame. Tony LaRussa walked away in glory but Joe Maddon managed even better. Terry Francona got shafted allowing Bobby Valentine's return from oblivion.

Hereabouts it was memorable, for better or worse. Unforgettable was the Red Sox bitter and classic September meltdown. It was one for the ages. The Celtics looked old being ousted by Miami, then did nothing to improve after the lock-out. The Patriots got ambushed by the mouthy Jets which was tough to swallow. But they're back again, pounding at the gate.

It was left to the Bruins, the poor kids on the block for a long, lost generation, to lift the entire region in ways that were touching, memorable and grand. For two months all of New England rode their rollicking bandwagon to the Stanley Cup and it was a joyful trip, graced equally with sweet nostalgia and new found wonder.

In a year in which heroes were hard to find, the Boston Bruins stood tallest of all.

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