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The year in Sports: an accounting

High among the vanities of this dodge is the specious notion that as the year runs out it’s possible to grade events that have transpired over the length of the calendar and even ascribe to them a lasting value. Or lack thereof, as the case may be.

It’s a silly business, maybe more so than ever as the kingdom of sport becomes lathered with all the confusion, tension, and doubt surging all around it. Has the fun been drained from the games we play? Are they any longer an escape? The old order changeth. But to what end? If the year of 2012 Sport had a theme, let alone an enduring message, it may have been that we can’t expect our games to rise much above their times.

Anyway, here’s some of what we’ll remember, as well as much we’d rather forget:

Of the home teams, only the Patriots came close to distinction, and after being thwarted again on Super Sunday by those dogged NY Giants, they threaten to redeem themselves big-time. At year’s end, no NFL team is better poised to romp in post-season, although the messy loss to the 49ers on Sunday night did remind us that Boss Belichick teams have been known to peak too early.

Winter teams get mixed reviews while drifting further into flux. The Celtics gave the NBA’s eventual champion Miami Hotdogs a scare, then lost Ray Allen and opted not to close the book on the Garnett-Pierce era. They now may be discovering that was a mistake. In defense of The Cup, the Bruins were erratic, ultimately allowing the inferior Capitals to eliminate them. In the smartest move any hockey player made, Tim Thomas – professing burn-out and having lost much of his charm – took a sabbatical. Everyone else in hockey remains on sabbatical, too, although it’s hardly of their choosing.

Then there were the Red Sox. They lost 93 games, finished last, devoured another manager, experienced a historic purge, and ended their season disgracefully. It was their lamest season since 1965. A fervent promise to swiftly redeem themselves has so far been a dud, with their young GM looking over-matched.

How long will this ownership, being rather more pragmatic than its predecessors, put up with this? Probably only as long as the suckers of the beloved Nation keep filling up their ballpark which, in the season’s lone highlight, observed its centennial amidst awkward folderol. As Red Sox seasons go, this one was a classic.

Otherwise, the game bears on with incessant tinkering. The playoffs were expanded and soon face further expansion. Houston got moved to the American League. The Dodgers got sold for $2.2 billion, then added another near-billion in bad contracts no one else wanted. The cynical Marlins tore apart a team they’d put together just a year ago, and the commissioner did nothing. The A’s made the playoffs with the league’s lowest payroll. But money still ruled. In the World Series, the Giants, with baseball’s sixth highest payroll, beat the Tigers, with the fifth highest. Then, in the oddest twist, the Yankees, after a strange playoff meltdown, chose austerity.

It was football, however, that had the roughest time. Mounting violence became epidemic, shaming even the game’s best and brightest. A thousand ex-NFL stalwarts joined in a lawsuit aimed at making the league pay dearly for its past indifference to player suffering. In the gravest embarrassment in NFL history, the Saints were charged with running a bounty program whereby defenders were handsomely rewarded for maiming opponents. Rogue players were increasingly out of control. In consecutive weeks, tragedy producing wrongful death stunned the game.

By comparison, the travesty now threatening to wipe out an entire professional hockey season seemed relatively tame if little less outrageous. Greed was the principal culprit further antagonized by a corrosive mutual distrust between player and owner deeply rooted in NHL history. That it all seemed so needless compounded the folly.
There was no shortage of people or issues to rail about:
Like Lance Armstrong: After years of belligerent denial he was finally exposed as a timeless cheat and fraud who ran a doping program while controlling his entire US cycling team with the force of an old-fashioned bully.  Stripped of all honors accrued in his long run as alleged king of the road, Armstrong’s defrocking was touched with a certain bitterness.

A more contrite Tiger Woods inched further along the trail of redemption but the process remained slow. When Woods’s Ryder Cup team got edged by the Euro squad in a wonderful finish, few Yanks bemoaned the fact that Tiger had contributed very little.

Patriots’ fans booed Adam Vinatieri, who played gallant roles in their only Super Bowl triumphs. It was even more bush than the Red Sox yahoos booing Johnny Damon a few years back.

Ohio State football, heavily censured for the gross ethical violations of a former coach, nonetheless went undefeated, proving yet again there’s no justice in college football. “Goodbye Columbus” types petitioned President Obama to lift the bowl-game ban imposed on OSU which, happily, he denied.

A Texas A & M red-shirted freshman quarterback –unheard of four months ago – won the Heisman Trophy, proving yet again that the most prestigious college sporting honorific has totally lost its meaning and relevance.

Meanwhile, the NCAA, purported watchdog of college sport, also continued to lose its relevance.

Of much graver significance, Jerry Sandusky was sent to the slammer for roughly five lifetimes for the crimes of sexual abuse that destroyed Penn State’s illustrious program. Books attempting to rationalize the late Joe Paterno’s role in the wretched business rolled from the presses; however there seemed little mood for it.

In Puerto Rico, Hector “Macho” Camacho, not long ago among the finest pugilists, died in an appallingly ugly street crime. Can Boxing slide much lower on contemporary humanity’s scale of depravity? The answer is no.

Happily, there were near as many issues and people that made us smile. Some examples:

A.J Dickey; the 38-year-old knuckle-balling Mets hurler whose finely written autobiography tracing his remarkable triumph over impossible odds won him almost as many plaudits as his pitching.

Remember Jeremy Lin? For about a month, the bright and unassuming Harvard grad was the talk of the nation as he rose from Ivy League walk-on to budding Knicks star. The Knicks being the Knicks, this charming tale faded in New York. But a revival proceeds in Houston.

Tim Tebow. He moved his curious act to Gotham where he remained the most celebrated bench-warming scrub in all of pro sport. Try as they might, they can’t break this kid’s remarkable spirit.

Notre Dame Football. It bloomed, seemingly, out of nowhere, charming the sentimental with long memories. The ultimate test looms with pagan Alabama the foe. Can sentiment carry the day?

Women in Sport.  Cited by many as America’s true ‘athletes of the year’, they dazzled in international forays climaxing in a sensational effort in the London Olympics. The Revolution sparked by a simple Congressional order a generation ago is complete.

Great Britain’s favorite tennis brat, Andy Murray, comes of age. His gold medal coup at the Olympics may have been the year’s most emotional sporting moment. Rivaling it was his triumph in New York, at the US Open. It was all quite fitting.

Which brings us, with a certain inevitability, to the best sports story of the year, at least in my opinion. And that would be the London Olympics, which sparkled in early August against, it seemed, all the odds. Boundless were the predictions that it would be an utter disaster, blighted by terrorism, weather, traffic, urban chaos, mediocrity, or maybe all five. But the games, lifted by the pluck of the athletes and the legendary grit of the Brits, prevailed, magnificently.

Which is a nice note on which to end this tome. And with it, another year.