2012 was a sports year like none other in recent memory.
Whether it be an unknown Asian point guard taking the NBA by storm, unknown refs tearing apart the integrity of the NFL (courtesy of the Commissioner), the return of arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, the fall of an American hero and cancer survivor or the destruction of what makes college sports great, we had our share both on the field/court and off.
Here are my top five stories of the year:
Living near New York and having witnessed this phenomenon up close, it seems so distant now: Jeremy Lin, Harvard grad, 12th man on the bench for the Knicks, burst onto the NBA scene so suddenly, so enormously, he ended up on the cover of Time within a month of his emergence.
He was great to watch—that 38-point explosion against the Los Angeles Lakers on national television; the 3-pointer to beat the Toronto with half the arena north of the border cheering him on; the exclamation point against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks (28 points, 14 assists, five steals).
The kid was the biggest thing to hit Madison Square Garden since Muhammad Ali.
But, just as quickly as it began, it all ended with a whimper. Not by Lin going cold, but a knee injury that would effectively end his season.
The only question that remained was whether he was a flash in the pan or whether his level of play could be sustainable for a long career. Knicks management bet on the former, and off to Houston he went, $25 million dollars richer than he was before sanity set in.
However it turns out, Knick fans—hell, the entire country—will always remember the six weeks that was Linsanity.
4. Replacement Ref Debacle
2012 will be the year known for the descent of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Whether it be the irrationally harsh punishment around BountyGate (a decision that would later be reversed) or the growing (and disturbing) issue around concussions and player safety, Goodell has gone from untouchable to almost-Gary Bettman-esque in a matter of 12 months.
But the biggest hit to his legacy will ultimately be the replacement ref debacle.
For the first three weeks of the 2012 season, everything was going according to plan. The replacements weren’t perfect, not even close, but they hadn’t cost any team a game to that point. Sure, there were more fights on the field and more missed calls than usual, but the complaints weren’t loud enough to reach the casual fan.
Until a Week 4 Monday night in Seattle. We all know what happened.
The Green Bay Packers have a five-point lead. The Seahawks are down to their final play. Russell Wilson heaves a Hail Mary in the back of the end zone. The Pack’s Sam Shields is shoved from behind by Seattle’s Golden Tate, but no matter…Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings would intercept the pass.
Tate is late in getting to the ball, now securely in the hands of Jennings. But he is able to touch the edges of the ball as Jennings lies on the turf.
Anyone, even the most fervent Seahawk fan, will tell you the ball belonged to Jennings.
Game over. Packers win.
But the ruling on the field is a touchdown. No matter…it will be overturned on the replay.
Of course, it wasn’t. Twitter, Facebook and ESPN exploded simultaneously, and the call was the talk of every news show for two days.
Facing overwhelming pressure, the league and the referee union miraculously came to an agreement.
Few would argue that Goodell presides over the most profitable, most revered, most entertaining product America has to offer outside of Apple. But his image has been tarnished forever. Now, he’s no more respected than Selig, Stern or (gulp) Bettman.
3. Peyton’s Comeback
While one Manning was winning his second Super Bowl with another improbable late drive, the other was getting yet another surgery on a neck that didn’t seem to want to heal itself.
John Elway would ultimately win this battle, signing the 36-year-old to a five-year contract worth nearly $100 million.
A risk? Sure.
But when Tim Tebow is your alternative, it ain’t much of a risk at all.
After a 3-3 start, the Broncos traveled to San Diego for a then-crucial game with the Chargers. Trailing 24-0, Denver appeared to be heading towards a two-game deficit in the AFC West, but Peyton was unfazed. And 35 second-half points later, a 35-24 road victory changed everything in the division—which Manning and the Broncos now lead by an unthinkable six games.
Manning will win his fifth MVP and possibly the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award this season—although Adrian Petersen’s argument may be more solid, given the rushing record he may break on Sunday.
It’s a long way from watching Eli win a Super Bowl in his former Indy home in February…
2. Lance Armstrong’s Demise
I read It’s Not About the Bike and was never more moved by one man’s courage and determination than Armstrong’s. He fell into that pantheon of athletes and celebrities who could never, ever cheat, get arrested or be anything but classy:
4. Derek Jeter
3. Beyoncé Knowles
2. Peyton Manning
1. Lance Armstrong
So when Armstrong finally conceded that he did, in fact, use performance enhancers to help win those seven consecutive Tour De France championships, it was genuinely a shock, even in a time when it seems everyone in his sport is drugged up in one way or another.
Armstrong has since been stripped of all titles and now faces legal challenges that could cost him millions.
1. Conference Realignment in College Sports
My school, the University of Maryland, decided to throw 60 years of membership in the ACC to jump to the Big Ten.
Gone would be two games a year in basketball against Duke and UNC.
We’d get Michigan and Ohio State to beat up on us in football instead.
Up until this year, you had some jumping around from schools to different conferences, but nothing as horrific as we’ve witnessed in 2012. So instead of running it all down, let’s do another list-within-a-list of the top five rivalries that will no longer exist in college football or basketball:
- Pittsburgh (now ACC) vs. West Virginia (now Big 12)
- Georgetown (now in limbo) vs. Syracuse (now ACC)
- Duke (still ACC) vs. Maryland (now Big Ten)
- Notre Dame (now forced to play five ACC football teams for whatever reason after joining the ACC in basketball) vs. Michigan (still Big Ten)
- BYU (now independent) vs. Utah (Pac-12)
It’s all for T.V. money, of course. All about building super conferences despite basic rules of geography.
College football was built on two things: rivalries and tradition. It was all about certain teams playing each other during specific times of the season…
Those days will soon be long gone. As will the true appeal of college athletics.
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