Just months removed from a shocking cluster of hockey fatalities, the tight-knit Canadian amateur sport community was rocked by the deaths of freestyle skier Sarah Burke and skicross competitor Nik Zoricic just weeks apart early in 2012, both while engaged in athletic endeavour. If the zeal in which some mainstream news organization pursued the tragedies involving athletes they'd undoubtedly never heard of was a bit off-putting, their lives and contributions were well worth remembering.
There were necessary questions to ask, as well. Zoricic's family called upon the sport's governing body to conduct a thorough investigation and to ensure optimal safety conditions. Burke's death brought into focus the very question of risk in sports. By all accounts, it was a manoeuvre she'd performed countless times.
In the United States, the fall from stature of two of the bigger, more esteemed names in all of sports marked the year that was. Lance Armstrong and Joe Paterno, and the scandal involving the New Orleans Saints — it was clearly illustrated that the past can come back to haunt.
You hear the one about the 12 dirty cyclists?
Roger Clemens was found not guilty in a court of law, if not public opinion, to charges of perjury to Congress regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong did not appear at any such courtroom or panel, choosing to not engage in a defence of the United States Anti-Doping Agency's allegations of PED use for years, as well as pressuring other riders to follow suit. There were evidently 11 cyclists lined up, among 20-odd witnesses, to contradict his image as a clean rider due to passing hundreds of drug tests.
It was a dishonourable business all around. USADA praised the "courage" of the 11 who squealed, er, were pressured to forward. A couple of them have seen fit to write books. The head of the cycling union wished Armstrong's name would never be mentioned again. As if the body was oblivious all those years to what was underfoot. As if the sport, which receives a wholly disproportionate amount of media attention in relation to its popularity, would have received half that amount without Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins and comeback from testicular cancer, harkening back to Major League Baseball's averted gaze as the press revelled in the 1998 home run record chase.
Armstrong was stripped of those seven titles, lost major sponsors and was forced to resign the chairmanship of his charitable organization Livestrong, which has raised hundreds of millions for cancer research (He's still on the board).
If it felt like the deck was stacked against him or that he was a totem or scapegoat, he didn't exactly cut the most sympathetic figure despite his philanthropic deeds. He was belligerent, obfuscating — a test for EPO did not exist throughout his years at the top — and there was nothing to back up the claim some of his supporters posited, that every single team was engaged in widespread doping and it was necessary to keep up.
Armstrong transcends sports and has legions of supporters still. Americans are remarkably open to second acts for their celebrities, but it usually requires some kind of repentance first, which doesn't seem to be for Armstrong. You almost wish you could fast forward 10 or 20 years from now to see what his life has become.
As ever in modern sports, eye-popping performances from men and women of all ages raised suspicion of improper means. There was 16-year-old Chinese girl Ye Shiwen winning two Olympic gold medals in the pool, and boxer Juan Manuel Marquez (working with former track and field PED peddler Angel Heredia) discovering the fountain of power at 39, blasting Manny Pacquiao into unconsciousness when he hadn't knocked his rival down in three previous 12-round bouts.
Baseball already had its so-called "steroid era", so what do we call this period, in which top players Ryan Braun — who successfully appealed in January — and Melky "Fake Website" Cabrera were ensnared by positive tests?
Integrity again came into question in soccer, dogged by match-fixing and improper betting allegations in several spots around the globe. Even a non-prestigious Canadian league was vulnerable, as brought to light by a CBC investigation. Meanwhile, a large faction of fans of Russian champion Zenit St. Petersburg beseeched their club to not pursue any dark-skinned or homosexual players.
The ills of horse racing were exposed in a superlative New York Times series. Those pesky details were swept aside as Canadian news outlets fairly cheerleaded I'll Have Another's Triple Crown chances due to the modest connections the horse had to this country.
When the horse pulled out on the eve of the Belmont Stakes due to injury, more cynical horse racing observers raised their eyebrows. The horse's trainer was due to serve a suspension for an excess carbon dioxide level in another horse, which can lead to injuries. Then there was the matter of a boffo stud fee that could be jeopardized by a catastrophic injury. The horse was sold a month later to a Japanese consortium for $10 million US.
Lions in winter
When the Penn State child sex abuse scandal first broke in the latter half of 2011, it seemed a story that would dominate the sports headlines for years to come. While lawsuits and a criminal case against school administrators await, it was amazing how quickly and definitively the two biggest featured names in the scandal receded from view.
Jerry Sandusky exercised his right to a speedy trial, and just months later was put away for essentially for the rest of his life. The predator displayed an unbelievable amount of obtuseness and lack of self-awareness in interviews along the way.
Legendary Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno died in January, mere weeks after the scandal first broke publicly. If he was given the benefit of the doubt by some in the early stages of the scandal, it was clear by the release of the Freeh Report in July that senility, "old world Catholic values" and being "just a football coach" weren't cutting it as explainers for his inaction over a period of years. In his last major interview, Paterno flat-out lied about what he knew, and when, according to the report, which called him a player in the "active effort to conceal." His famed statue was soon removed from the the school's stadium.
Paterno was arguably the most powerful college coach ever in the U.S., but too many reign over their fiefdoms, usually with impunity. Married father of four Bobby Petrino – who previously left his only NFL coaching job via Dear John letter — got caught out in Arkansas, however, riding a motorcycle over the bridge he burned. He crashed the bike, with his twentysomething girlfriend aboard. He didn't mention the passenger to authorities at first, and it was later revealed that he had helped get her on the school's payroll after a sham job selection process.
But apparently it's a really important priority for Western Kentucky to be good at football. Just over seven months later they hired Petrino as coach, to the tune of $850,000 US per season. Lock up your co-eds, Hilltoppers!
The New Orleans Saints found out that on-field actions from years ago had consequences. The afterglow of a championship season in 2007 less than two years removed from Hurricane Katrina was replaced for many in 2012 by a patina resulting from their bounty scandal. Head coach Sean Payton incurred an unprecedented season-long suspension for approval of a system in which handsomely paid athletes were enticed with the prospect of three- to five-figure cash bonuses to injure their union brothers.
But even commissioner Roger Goodell didn't come out unscathed. Insulated by years of unilaterally imposing discipline on players for off-field behaviour, he failed to appreciate how thorny and complex the Saints case was for him to fly solo (although two arbitrators initially upheld his ability to mete out punishment given the terms of the 2011 NFL CBA). In the end predecessor Paul Tagliabue, vacated Goodell's suspensions for four players.
The Saints story broke as the subject of long-term concussion damage got increasing media play, and over 3,000 ex-players put their names to lawsuits accusing the league of concealing information for years about the risks of head trauma.
For good measure, Goodell saw his league's product degraded by a lockout of officials, with replacement refs making a mockery of the end of a Packers-Seahawks game.
Tragic, for the innocent
Maybe it ultimately wasn't a factor, but It was impossible not to at least think about concussions when it came to Jovan Belcher, an NFLer only known to the most devoted fans before Dec. 1. The word tragedy was thrown around quite a bit after the murder-suicide committed by the player. The fact the Chiefs linebacker apologized and thanked his coach and GM before ending his life humanized him more than, say, Rae Carruth. Had it been a stockbroker or electrician who had fired nine shots at the young mother of a now-orphaned child after a night spent chasing another woman, we don't have speculate whether that particular descriptor would have been used.
When Torres goes up, players fall down
Did you think this compilation of lowlights would not include hockey?!
Remember the NHL's spinning wheel of justice? It seems like years ago, but it was indeed this one. Brendan Shanahan put a face and explanation to the league's discipline rulings after years of opaqueness in the process, but that didn't make some of the decisions any easier to comprehend.
After the Senators and Rangers, and especially Penguins and Flyers, paid homage to the 1970s-style woolliness in the first round of the playoffs, you knew the proverbial book was going to be launched at the next offender. Enter serial concussion-deliverer Raffi Torres of Phoenix. Torres left his feet, hit high and made contact late on Chicago's Marian Hossa in an April 17 game. Torres got a 25-game suspension, later reduced by four.
How damaging was the hit? Hossa, who had played all 84 of his team's games up to the point, was cleared for contact only days ago. Of course, he's missed precisely zero NHL games in 2012-13 due to the second significant work stoppage in nine years.
NHL says no to Big Mo
The current lockout could provide fodder for years to come for MBA students looking to study examples of brand self-sabotage.
Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr conducted breezy interviews in the spring, blithely pooh-poohing the notion that the two sides should probably start getting serious ahead of the September expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. Bettman was decidedly less sunny about the notion proferred by Fehr that the same CBA could hold sway and the league's stars head for 2012-13 training camps while the sides worked towards a deal.
Clearly the $3.3 billion US revenue figure too often touted by some fans and pundits masks real problems of imbalance around the league, which features a handful of powerhouse clubs and just as many, if not more, precarious franchises. But the last few years have also been marked by a sublime Olympic tournament, the emergence of several new stars, improved U.S. television ratings, and the entrenchment of the Winter Classic as a huge revenue and awareness driver for the league.
The NHL chose to throw all of that significant momentum away in order to ensure its owners don't continue to commit to contracts beyond their budgets and lifespans. This league alone seems to be carrying the torch for the not-lamented 1981-1995 era when the sports labour picture was fractious, work stoppages were frequent, and replacement players were even used on occasion.
Yes, football and basketball had recent lockouts. But in those sports the sense of partnership and collaboration to grow the game never seemed to be completely extinguished. Even when those unions decertified, there was never any real belief the sports would implode.
Contrast that to the NHL, where just one negative negotiating session threatens to derail like a speeding boulder headed towards a glass house whatever soupçon of goodwill that has been mustered amid a backdrop of decades of dysfunction between the two sides.