2012 was an eventful year in sports. From A-Rod being benched in the playoffs, to the Zenit St. Petersburg soccer club’s fans’ demand for an all white, heterosexual team, here are the 12 biggest sports stories of 2012.
1. The New Orleans Saints “Bounty Program”
Yes, football is a rough game. That’s one of the reasons we all like watching it so much. But the news that the New Orleans Saints had been running a “bounty program” that offered players cash rewards for hurting opposing players made most NFL fans deeply uneasy. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season, former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, and several players were suspended for periods ranging from a few games to the entire season. Despite what appeared to be overwhelming video, audio, and thousands of pages of documentary evidence, the players claimed that the bounty program did not exist. The players’ suspensions were recently overturned on appeal. Yet curiously, the coaches’ suspensions remain. Meanwhile, one of the players has sued NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation.
2. Lance Armstrong Stripped of All Seven Tour de France Titles
Lance Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting doping allegations that had dogged him for over a decade destroyed one of the only things that Americans seemed unanimous about — that Lance was a legitimate hero. The evidence against Armstrong appears overwhelming, with his former teammates lining up to detail one of the most sophisticated doping rings in history. It never made much sense that Armstrong was able to win cycling’s premier event seven times in a row without doping when it seemed that virtually everyone else in his sport was using drugs. But since he had never failed a drug test, and he miraculously survived of brain and testicular cancer to start the wildly successful Livestrong charity for cancer research, Americans gave Armstrong the benefit of the doubt.
Jeremy Lin exploded onto the NBA scene in February by coming off the street to put up impressive statistics for the New York Knicks. Lin’s success story captivated people all over the country and world, personally appealing to them in a variety of ways. Lin was the first and only Asian-American in memory to receive any degree of media attention for success as an NBA player, and was the highest profile player of Asian descent since Yao Ming. As a Harvard alum, Lin showed that Ivy Leaguers can succeed in the NBA too. As a player who was recently released from his contract, he showed that sometimes all someone needs is the right situation and a chance.
When legendary linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide earlier this year, observers were quick to link his death with a series of other NFL players who committed suicide after sustaining concussions or other brain injuries during their playing careers. Sidney Crosby, probably the best player in the NHL, has missed most of the last two seasons because of concussions. Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, a two-time All-Star, spent the better part of two years recovering from multiple concussions, suffering months of dizziness, nausea, lack of balance, migraines, and loss of memory. Influential ESPN journalist Michael Wilbon has publicly stated that he will not let his son play football — the risks are just too great.
5. Labor Trouble
It sure is difficult to understand why groups of millionaires and bilionaires have such a hard time deciding how to divvy up the caviar and Cristal. Yet the NBA lost much of its season to a lockout. The NHL’s owners are locking out their players too, making it increasingly possible that the NHL will not have this year’s season at all. But the biggest labor story of all was the NFL’s decision to lockout its officials at the start of the season. The replacements mixed up routine calls, in some cases did not know the rules, and made some games take up to four hours to play because they kept taking so much time to figure out how to do their jobs. The NFL eventually got the regular officials back on the field, but only after a team of replacement officials effectively robbed the Green Bay Packers of a game-winning interception on Monday Night Football.
6. Chiefs/Cowboys deaths
The NFL tragically suffered the deaths of two active players within a few days of each other. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher apparently snapped and killed his girlfriend before driving to his team’s home stadium and killing himself in front of his coach and general manager. Bob Costas controversially used the tragedy to promote his pro-gun control opinion on a sports television show. Just a few days later, Dallas Cowboys player Josh Brent wrecked his car while driving drunk, killing his good friend and teammate Jerry Brown. Brent’s blood alcohol level was reportedly .18, more than twice the legal limit.
7. Peyton Manning
Arguably the greatest quarterback of all time sat out the 2011 season with a neck injury that was shrouded in mystery. Did he have three neck surgeries, or four? Could he still grip the football tightly enough to throw it? Could one more hit do serious, permanent damage to the NFL legend? Would he ever play again? With the right to draft quarterback prodigy Andrew Luck in hand, the Colts chose to cut ties with Manning rather than pay him his huge salary, leading to an NFL version of The Bachelor. With suitors lined up, Manning joined the Denver Broncos, who are currently headed to the playoffs on the strength of a resurgent Manning and an NFL best 10-game winning streak.
8. Lionel Messi’s 91 Goals in All Competitions
In a sport where matches frequently end 1-0, the influence of one man scoring 91 goals in a calendar year is truly staggering. Though Messi smashed Gerd Muller’s record of 85 goals in 1972, Messi played more games than Muller did 40 years ago. Yet with elite Asian and American players now routinely playing professionally in Europe, and with elite east European players no longer kept behind the Iron Curtain, there is little doubt that the competition that Messi faced is far superior to the competition Muller faced.
9. LeBron and the Heat Win the NBA Title
Ever since LeBron James' “decision” to “take [his] talents to South Beach,” and his subsequent pronouncements that it would take winning “not six, not seven” championships to satisfy him, even casual sports fans have been rooting against the Miami Heat. Aside from LeBron’s obvious arrogance, the Heat have been a magnet for attention because most fans have been both intrigued and repulsed [read: jealous of] by the Heat’s ability to get three of the NBA’s biggest star free agents to sign with their team at the same time. LeBron, Dwayne Wade, and co. may have won their first NBA championship in June, but whether they live up to their own ridiculously high standard of eight titles remains to be seen, and should keep fans cheering against LeBron and Heat for years to come.
10. Penn State
Just a few months after the death of legendary former coach Joe Paterno in January, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of molesting 10 boys, and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in jail. The NCAA handed out some of the harshest penalties in memory to Penn State, fining them $60 million, restricting their scholarships, and banning them from postseason play for four years. The NCAA also allowed Penn State’s players to transfer to other schools without being requiring so sit out a year, and some of Penn State’s best players left the program. The team still finished a surprising 8-4 under new coach Bill O’Brien, giving fans hope that Penn State might be able to move on.
11. Conference Realignment
In 2012, universities all over the country played musical chairs, the conferences played Hungry Hungry Hippos, and everyone searched for a more lucrative television contract. Geographical considerations have been abandoned — Maryland left the Atlantic Coast Conference for the traditionally Midwestern Big Ten, while San Diego State and Boise State joined the Big East. Traditional rivalries were abandoned too, with Syracuse, Providence, Georgetown, and Villanova each leaving the Big East conference they co-founded.
Gabby “the Flying Squirrel” Douglas’s charming smile and engaging personality captured America’s hearts as she became the first African-American gymnast to win the all-around Olympic Gold, and helped add the team Gold Medal as well. Teammate McKayla Maroney delivered 2012’s most famous smirk after settling for the silver in the vault. Michael Phelps become the most decorated Olympian of all time. Usain Bolt became the first man to win both the 100m and 200m sprints in consecutive Olympics.
Honorable mentions: A-Rod Benched in Playoffs, Notre Dame Football is Back, R.A. Dickey, Rookie QBs excel, Roger Clemens acquitted, Dodgers sold for a massive sum, Tebow-mania, Miguel Cabrera Triple Crown