Column: Rounding Out the Year in Sports

It could have been worse: At least Michigan beat the Buckeyes
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

But this year, the sports page had plenty of both. Sad to say, bad news tends to travel faster.

So let’s start with some good news. In men’s tennis, the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, already one of the best in tennis history, was joined by a man named Novak Djokovic, who won three major titles this year on a gluten-free diet – no joke. We might be watching the sport’s greatest era. Even better, all three players are true sportsmen, resorting to none of the ranting and raving of past greats.

Today, the spoiled brats are on the first tee, led by Tiger Woods, whose petulant tantrums on the course were eclipsed by his behavior off it. Now he’s trying to reassemble his knee, his swing and his life all at once. His opponents don’t like him, but they have to pull for him to return, along with their big paychecks.

The Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs for their 20th consecutive year – an incredible accomplishment of consistency in the modern era of parity and free agency. If you’re in college, you cannot recall when they were so bad we called them the “Dead Things.” General manager Ken Holland is the best in sports. Period.

The Tigers, meanwhile, stretched their playoff streak to one. Justin Verlander starts the game throwing 95-miles per hour, and ends it throwing over 100. He is the most dominant Detroit pitcher in four decades. Take your kids to see him now, so years later they can tell their grandkids.

The biggest surprise in the state has been the Lions – formerly known as the Lie Downs. They are still recovering from the reign of former president Matt Millen, who led the team to a historically awful run. Now he has a lucrative job judging the people still doing his old position better than he ever did. Which only proves my theory: the worse you were managing or coaching, the more likely you will get a job criticizing the very people who beat you every week.

The last time the Lions won a playoff game, the Red Wings were just starting their 20-year streak of playoff appearances. The Red Wings aim for Stanley Cups, every year. The Lions set their sights on mediocrity, and this year, standing at 8-5 with three games left, they just might reach it.

It looked like no one was going to make the NBA playoffs this season, because for three months there was no NBA season, thanks to the lock out. All work-stoppages in professional sports are indefensible, but the consolation in this case was that few seemed to care. The only thing more pointless than the first half of the NBA regular season is the first half of every game. We didn’t miss you.

The good news for Detroit basketball fans is that your team will soon be back on the court. The bad news is: Your team is the Detroit Pistons, whose odds of making the playoffs haven’t changed since the lock out started.

This year, the media spotlight shone brightest on college sports – and what it revealed wasn’t pretty. It started with a cynical game of musical chairs among colleges and their conferences. When the music ended, Boise State somehow was sitting in the Big East – making it the biggest East you’ve ever seen.

Then the scandals started. The NCAA gave Ohio State a clean bill of health after a rushed investigation so the Buckeyes could play in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes won the game, but lost all respect when head coach Jim Tressel got caught lying through his sweater vest. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who had worked for Tressel, described him as a “tragic hero.” This phrase originally meant a virtuous man who suffers misfortune, not some guy who got caught cheating. Perhaps Dantonio knows something Aeschylus didn’t.

But the biggest scandal in college sports – scratch that, the saddest in the history of all sports – is the travesty still unfolding at Penn State. A former assistant coach is accused – and pardon me, but euphemism will not do here – of raping young boys. It is already horrifying, and it will surely get worse before it’s over. For the victims, it never will be.

These cases reveal an underlying problem: Once a college coach becomes an icon, no one has the power – or the guts – to point out the emperor has no clothes. Until college presidents realize they have more power than college coaches – or reporters remember they answer to the readers, not the legends – we will remain at the coaches’ mercy. Heaven help us.

The long-term effects of football injuries are finally getting the attention they deserve, but it’s too late for too many. Of the first 25 notable sports deaths in 2011, seven were football players, and only one lived to be 70. Something is very wrong here.

In Michigan, at least, the year brought good news: Michigan State’s men’s basketball team made it back to the Final Four, and its football team won the first Legends Division title. In Ann Arbor, the Wolverines are winning again. Brady Hoke beat the Buckeyes in his first season, riding a resurgent defense. Sometimes, good things happen to good people, and this senior class has a bunch of them.

Sparky Anderson, the first manager to lead teams in both leagues to World Series titles, died this year at 76. Two years ago, I asked him what’s the best advice he could give a coach. He pointed two of his gnarled fingers at his leathery face, cracked his famous grin, and said, “Trust your eyes, son. Trust your eyes.”

Maybe he wasn’t talking about sports, after all.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” His next local book signing will be at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Dec. 17 from 2-4 p.m.

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