It's not unusual for the biggest stories in sports to occur off the field. The unexpected development is, almost by definition, newsworthy. Having, say, the Lakers or the Celtics win an NBA title isn't unexpectedly historic.
Even so, 2011 was quite a year, a revolving run of scandal, conflict and tragedy that seemed to overwhelm the actual competition. None, of course, was greater than the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse allegations that enveloped the once believed-to-be-pristine world of Joe Paterno's Penn State football program.
It wasn't just voted the story of the year by Yahoo! Sports readers. It shows little sign of slowing down and should linger into 2012 and beyond as criminal and civil trials push forward and the debate about Paterno's legacy continues.
The Sandusky case, however, is simply the highest profile and worst situation of the year, one in which it had plenty of competition.
They overshadowed a year that wasn't without glorious moments – a thrilling NBA Finals won by the Dallas Mavericks, the Green Bay Packers' tremendous run through the NFL, riveting baseball playoffs, a final-lap duel for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the burst-on-the-scene brilliance of mixed martial arts sensation Jon Jones, to name a few among many.
Both the NFL and NBA had prolonged work stoppages that left fans wondering about circuit court rulings and revenue sharing.
College sports went through another run of largely unnecessary and tradition-killing conference realignment. Anytime that seemed settled, there was another wave of schools, teams and players violating the NCAA's often-archaic yet always financially valuable rulebook. Starring roles involved everything from crooked bowl directors to a drug-dealing tattoo parlor owner to a Ponzi-scheming booster.
The FBI showed up a lot in sports copy this year.
Even when sports seemed to get something right, it often broke bad.
Baseball had a wonderful postseason only to have its National League MVP, Ryan Braun, caught up in a performance-enhancing drugs controversy.
The NHL had a great Stanley Cup Playoffs, won by the Boston Bruins, only to be overshadowed by a massive street riot in Vancouver after the final game. The only upside: It produced perhaps the most iconic sporting image of the year.
NASCAR had an exciting Daytona 500 and perhaps its greatest Chase for the Cup ever – won in the final lap by Tony Stewart – yet auto racing was rocked by the death of popular open-wheel racer Dan Wheldon in a terrible wreck in Las Vegas.
Boxing didn't lack for great fights for its core fans but to the general sports fan, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather continued to avoid fighting each other. That disappointment was punctuated by Mayweather being sentenced to 87 days in prison for domestic abuse that also could make 2012 a wash.
Likewise, true golf fans were thrilled when Charl Schwartzel delivered four consecutive birdies on the back nine at Augusta, good for a blistering final-round 66 and the green jacket – one of many great performances. But Tiger Woods continued to struggle, and ratings sagged.
In the end, however, nothing could compare with Penn State, which under 46 years of Paterno's leadership was purported to represent a last bastion of integrity. Its motto: "Success with honor." Until an ugly and detailed grand jury presentment went public on Nov. 5, casting a pall over that night's "Game of the Century" between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama.
The allegations against Sandusky, Paterno's one-time defensive coordinator, changed everything. The abuse of multiple young boys, often inside Penn State football facilities or in hotel rooms on team road trips, quickly enveloped everyone who may have had a chance to stop him but failed to act.
The school's athletic director and a vice president are facing charges on perjury and failure to report the abuse of a minor. The school president, who initially backed those two, was fired.
So too was Paterno, who may have done enough to avoid prosecution, but was deemed by many to have failed to do enough ethically. So heavily did his once-pristine image tarnish that the Big Ten almost immediately stripped his name off its championship trophy.
For decades it seemed Joe Paterno was too good for college football. Now, suddenly, college football was too good for Joe Paterno?
The Sandusky case called into question the value placed not just on sports, but also on icons and idols and the institution. The brand, if you will. Within Penn State there was a culture that allowed for this to go on, for otherwise sensible, educated and successful adults to lose their values.
Somehow they heard about an old man and a young boy showering together and, would explain to the grand jury, "the allegations came across as not that serious."
Sexual-abuse scandals, while certainly no stranger to sports in the past, took center stage. If there is one positive, the revelation of Sandusky's secret life increased awareness of the crime.
That required a shift in focus, however, a sapping of time on the highlight shows and Internet column space and radio talk-show banter.
It's not that 2011 was without great sporting performances – from Aaron Rodgers to Albert Pujols, from Tim Thomas to Dirk Nowitzki, from Drew Brees to Blake Griffin, from Justin Verlander to Cam Newton, from Robert Griffin III to Kevin Durant, from Kemba Walker to Tim Tebow …
It just too often was crowded out by all the other stuff. One more reminder that sports isn't just some diversion. It's real life, sometimes ugly beyond belief.
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- Joe Paterno
- Jerry Sandusky
- Penn State