The Year in Sports Controversies
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In the sports world, 2011 represented the best of times and the worst of times. What might have been remembered as the year of one of the greatest World Series games ever played and a thrilling, heartbreaking upset in the Women's World Cup will instead go down as the year of scandals, lockouts, and one horrific crime. Sports had plenty of villains this year—from David Stern to Jerry Sandusky—and too few heroes. Even people with no interest in the activity on the field couldn't ignore the sports world, and for all the wrong reasons. Click through for a recap of 2011's most infamous moments in sports.
And here's hoping that in 2012, SportsCenter can get back to leading with athletes' triumphs instead of tragedy and scandal.
The Penn State Rapes
In November, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 40 counts related to sexually abusing boys. The university's athletic director and senior vice president were charged with perjury and failure to report the abuse, and the grand jury testimony showed a pattern of university officials covering up Sandusky's crimes. Within days, university president Graham Spanier and head coach Joe Paterno—who had held his position for 46 years—had been ousted, prompting some students to embarrass the university and themselves by rioting in support of "Joe Pa." Sports Illustrated called the arrests and fallout "the most explosive scandal in the history of college sports," and even that probably trivializes the core issue: decades of child rape.
The investigation into the crimes continues to this day, as does the university's soul-searching into how it can prevent a crime of such epic proportions. Many commentators went too far in condemning the entire sports world for the horrific actions of a few, but Sandusky's crimes seem guaranteed to lead to long-overdue reforms on how college coaches operate and who is required to inform the police when they learn of criminal behavior.
The NFL and NBA Lockouts
It may like a distant memory now, but for a long stretch of the year it looked as though neither NBA nor NFL teams would play games this season. What seemed like a catastrophic lockout in professional football last summer wound up being settled relatively peacefully, and soon was overshadowed by the acrimony of the NBA talks.
The battle between basketball team owners and players—infused with paternalism and racism—played out in the media and on Twitter as much as in the board room. Commissioner David Stern looked petty and vindictive in calling players stupid while trying to cut their pay. The lockout came to a surprise end over Thanksgiving weekend, paving the way for a 66-game season to begin on Christmas Day, but the underlying issues of operating a sports league during an economic downturn were never addressed, practically guaranteeing more labor disputes down the road.
The University of Miami Benefits Scandal
Sports fans have long stopped being surprised by stories of illicit benefits doled out to college players, but a Yahoo! Sports investigation into the University of Miami's football program revealed a new level of violations. A booster for the program, in jail for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme, detailed to a reporter how he provided Miami players with "cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion."
News of the Miami violations came on the heels of the forced resignation of the coach at another of the nation's highest-profile college football teams. Ohio State University coach Jim Tressel stepped down after the NCAA accused him of lying to cover up evidence of his players selling team memorabilia in exchange for tattoos, cash, and other benefits. The two cases convinced many college sports observers that the entire system of amateur college athletics is irreparably damaged, including civil rights scholar Taylor Branch (see slide 6).
The Near-Collapse of Women's Professional Soccer
Over the summer, the state of women's soccer in America looked strong: The team posted a thrilling run to the World Cup final, then lost a penalty-kick heartbreaker to Japan in a game that drew huge TV ratings. Officials from Women's Professional Soccer, the pro league that has struggled to gain a foothold since it debuted in 2009, made bold predictions about how the newfound fame of World Cup stars like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe would cause attendance at WPS games to skyrocket. Finally, advocates thought, women's profesional sports would get the breakthrough moment they've anticipated for years.
Instead, average attendance at WPS games dropped slightly from 2010, to barely more than 3,500 people a game, and one team was terminated for its owner's refusal to cooperate with league rules. That left just five teams in the league, three short of the national governing body's requirement for professional play. U.S. Soccer eventually decided to grant the league an exemption, but the debate underscored the massive challenges facing women's professional sports in America.
The IndyCar Death
A 15-car pileup at the IndyCar World Championships in Las Vegas in October killed 33-year-old British driver Dan Wheldon and prompted a fresh round of calls for safety overhauls in auto racing.
Reports after the tragedy indicated that the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was unfit to host an IndyCar race, particularly one with a larger-than-average 34-car field. "We all had a bad feeling about this place in particular just because of the high banking and how easy it was to go flat," driver Oriol Servia told ESPN. "And if you give us the opportunity, we are drivers and we try to go to the front. We race each other hard because that's what we do. We knew it could happen, but it's just really sad."
The investigation into the crash continues, but IndyCar has already announced it will not race in Vegas next season.
The Call for Paying Student-Athletes
Shortly after news of the Ohio State and University of Miami benefits scandals broke, The Atlantic published a 14,500-word article in which Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch detailed the case for paying NCAA athletes under the headline "The Shame of College Sports." Branch found that "the football teams at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Penn State—to name just a few big-revenue football schools—each earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion-dollar salaries" while many players struggle to afford their living costs.
It's extremely unlikely that the NCAA will pay athletes any time soon—and there's a case to be made that salaries wouldn't fix the underlying issues plaguing college sports—but the article in a mainstream news magazine, by a prominent author from outside the sports world, intensified the discussion about those root problems.