Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, left, and former head coach Joe Paterno were linked to the school’s sex abuse scandal. McQueary reportedly saw former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually assault a boy in a locker room shower, and Paterno was fired in the aftermath for not doing more to report Sandusky.
ought to sports, what with the NBA and NFL players and owners huddling with lawyers and accountants, more unsettling reports of brains ravaged by hard hits, and college players being given cash, tattoos, access to strip clubs and pretty much anything else you can imagine, the games still mattered.
In less than two weeks, allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State and then at Syracuse shook both schools to the core, cost Joe Paterno his job and left us all with the searing question of whether our love for sports has helped corrupt what were once such simple games.
“I think there is a disillusionment there, but I think it’s reality. We haven’t seen behind the curtain before,” said Jarrod Chin, director for training and curriculum at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “We’ve used sport as a way to ignore problems. But now what we’re seeing is they exist there, too.
“That’s what makes it the worst year in sports. What people are coming to realize is the thing we thought was such a great escape has a lot of the same issues we’re trying to escape from.”
In sports, most years are defined by their triumphs. Golf’s latest phenom, Rory McIlroy, winning his first major at the U.S. Open, perhaps. Or Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers following up their Super Bowl victory by flirting with a perfect season.
Maybe Novak Djokovic’s utter dominance of the tennis world, a 70-6 record that included victories at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
Even in years tainted by steroids or labor strife, there was always someone or some performance that stood tall.
Not this year.
The lasting memories of 2011 will be of mug shots and court rooms, millionaires squabbling with billionaires, and big red Xs drawn through the first two months of the NBA schedule.
Sixteen games were pared off each NBA team’s schedule because of drawn-out labor negotiations, while the NFL wasted its summer vacation in conference rooms and mediation sessions.
“We have this arena where sport is pure, sport has been sanitized,” said Gary Sailes, a professor of sport sociology at Indiana University. “That’s just not the case.”
That illusion was shattered for good by the charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator and one-time Paterno heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
Once cherished in the Penn State community for his ferocious defenses and apparent devotion to at-risk children, Sandusky now faces more than 50 charges of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 12-year span. Prosecutors say Sandusky used his Nittany Lions connections to groom his victims, and some of the alleged assaults occurred on Penn State property.
Sandusky has denied the allegations, telling NBC and The New York Times that he showered and horsed around with boys but never sexually abused them. An emotional and lurid trial is a safe bet for 2012.
The shock of the initial charges quickly turned to anger as details emerged that Penn State officials — Paterno included — knew of an alleged assault in 2002 but never called police.
Receivers coach Mike McQueary testified that, as a graduate assistant, he believes he saw Sandusky raping a boy of about 10 or 12 in the Penn State showers. McQueary reported the incident to Paterno, who in turn told Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz.
Though Paterno said McQueary was not as explicit in his description of what happened as he was in his grand jury testimony, criticism over the now 85-year-old coach’s failure to do more intensified before Penn State’s board of trustees fired him Nov. 9.
The dismissal came just 10 days after Paterno celebrated his 409th career victory, making him major college football’s winningest coach.
“This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life,” Paterno said in a statement announcing his intention to retire at the end of the season, issued a few hours before he was fired. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer a few days later, and has undergone radiation and chemotherapy. He also re-fractured his pelvis earlier this month.
Curley and Schultz face charges of perjury and failing to properly report suspected abuse. The scandal also cost Penn State president Graham Spanier his job and tarnished the Nittany Lions’ squeaky clean reputation.
And it wasn’t just Penn State. The very next week, two former ball boys accused longtime Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine of molesting them.
Bobby Davis, now 39, told ESPN that Fine molested him beginning in 1984 and that the sexual contact continued until he was around 27. A ball boy for six years, Davis said that the abuse occurred at Fine’s home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.
Davis’ stepbrother, Lang, 45, who also was a ball boy, told ESPN that Fine began molesting him while he was in fifth or sixth grade.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was defiant in his initial defense of Fine, his top assistant since 1976, dismissing Davis and Long as opportunistic liars looking to capitalize on the misery at Penn State. But Boeheim’s tone changed after ESPN aired a tape Nov. 27 in which a woman it identified as Fine’s wife tells Davis she knew “everything” that was going on.
Syracuse fired Fine that day.
“What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found,” Boeheim said after Fine was ousted. “I deeply regret any statements I made that might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse.”
Still, Davis and Lang are suing Boeheim and Syracuse for defamation. And the district attorney in Syracuse has said the two are credible but that Fine cannot be charged because the statute of limitations has expired.
Federal authorities are still investigating claims by a third accuser. A fourth man, a prison inmate in New York state, also has accused Fine of abuse starting decades ago.
“The academic cheating, the recruitment violations, the gambling, taking steroids, that stuff has been a part of sports forever,” Sailes said. “But the veracity, the seriousness (of the sex-abuse scandals) — this is the last bastion of American innocence, our kids. So yeah, this is the worst.”
There also were plenty of scandals that, any other year, would have seemed reprehensible.
The NCAA came down on Ohio State, slapping the Buckeyes with that dreaded “failure to monitor” tag, banning them from a bowl game in 2012 and reducing scholarships for a series of misdeeds that had already cost former coach Jim Tressel his job and forced some players to sit out games this season.
And Tressel may as well carry a “Damaged Goods” sign after the NCAA hit him with a “show cause” penalty, making it almost impossible for another school to hire him.
Miami is sitting out the bowl season in hopes of sparing itself similar pain from the NCAA, which is investigating allegations a booster gave cash, cars, yacht rides, access to strip clubs, even prostitutes, to 72 athletes over a nine-year span. Twelve Hurricanes have already been punished by the NCAA, with penalties ranging from making restitution to lengthy suspensions.
Southern California was stripped of its 2004 BCS title in June for the shenanigans involving Reggie Bush, and defending champion Auburn and runner-up Oregon had to spend some quality time with NCAA investigators after questions about players’ eligibility. And don’t forget Tennessee, Boise State, Connecticut, West Virginia, Michigan, LSU and North Carolina, all of whom wound up on the NCAA’s naughty list this year.
“We have had a heck of a year of scandals and disruptions,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said earlier this month. “To have really good success on the one hand and all these grenades blowing up has been frustrating.”
So, too, the latest BCS mess.
The BCS may as well stand for Bowl Controversy Series for all the grumbling and mumbling it manages to produce on a yearly basis, and this year has only furthered the argument for some sort of a playoff in college football. Despite already losing to LSU once, Alabama will play the top-ranked Tigers in a Jan. 9 title game. Never mind that Oklahoma State had three wins against teams in the final BCS top 15, compared with just one for Alabama. Or that the Cowboys’ only loss came in double overtime at Iowa State, one day after Oklahoma State women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke and an assistant coach were killed in a plane crash.
Michigan State was relegated to the Outback Bowl while Michigan is headed to the Sugar Bowl despite the Spartans’ superior ranking and the fact they beat the Wolverines. Boise State was banished to the MAACO Bowl because of a 1-point loss to TCU.
“That’s the system,” Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham said. “It’s not fair. Life isn’t fair, but that’s how it is.”
Tell that to NFL and NBA fans, who spent months watching players and owners bicker as they tried to divvy up their billion-dollar industries.
“I’d like on behalf of both sides to apologize to the fans,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said when the NFL and its players reached a new contract July 25 after a 4½-month lockout, the league’s first work stoppage since 1987. “For the last five, six months we’ve been talking about the business of football and not what goes on on the field and building the teams in each market.”
Or not talking. Early negotiations were downright ugly, with Tom Brady and Drew Brees leading a lawsuit against the NFL and the players trying to do an end run of the lockout by decertifying their union. Even a federal mediator couldn’t get the sides to budge over the first few months.
“We have some work to do to make sure (fans) understand we are sorry for the frustration we put them through over the last six months,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Hey, at least the NFL had the good sense to settle its labor war before any of the season was lost. The NBA finally tipped off on Christmas Day after reaching agreement on a 10-year deal that, so far, seems only to have produced more gripes.
The NBA locked the players out for 161 days, insisting a new deal was necessary because owners were losing buckets of money — $300 million last season alone and hundreds of millions more in the years before that — and small-market teams could no longer compete with free-spending franchises like the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.
The new deal cut player salaries by 12 percent and includes a significant increase in revenue sharing. But players refused to budge on a hard salary cap, meaning there is still little to stop teams from throwing money at big-name players so long as they’re willing to pay the luxury tax.
Which explains why, with the ink barely dry on the new agreement, the league-owned New Orleans Hornets shipped All-Star Chris Paul to Los Angeles and Dwight Howard was asking for a ticket out of Orlando.
“Just like the regular fan out there, just like you guys, you do wonder why stuff happened. You look at it and say, ‘Why did the lockout happen?’ ” Miami guard Dwyane Wade said. “I don’t see it helping right now. Maybe in a few years we’ll all look back and see why this lockout happened. But right now it’s not showing its face at all.”
Hockey, meanwhile, is struggling to balance its fast, physical play with growing evidence that hard hits can cause long-lasting damage. NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby has played only eight games since January because of the lingering impact of hard shots, while points leader Claude Giroux missed four games because of a concussion. The Flyers shut captain Chris Pronger down just two months into the season because of severe post-concussion syndrome.
Equally sobering were the deaths this year of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien.
Auto racing mourned the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who was killed Oct. 16 in a fiery, 15-car wreck in the opening laps of the IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas. It was IndyCar’s first fatality in five years.
Troubling events in a year seemed filled with little else.
“In our society we create these myths around athletes and athletics,” said Sport in Society’s Chin. “But they’re myths, and that’s the whole issue.”