2012: A Year For Skepticism In Sports

With varying degrees of failure over a decade and a half, I have used my Half-baked Jake, ellipsis-pocked humor for my year-in-review, year-in-preview column. For example …

In the Year 2012, Gabby Douglas showed us that a squirrel could fly. In the Year 2012, Fireman Ed scurried away like a squirrel when Mark Sanchez showed us that none of his passes could …

In the Year 2012, George DeLeone ran the ball on first down. In the Year 2012, George DeLeone ran the ball on first down. In the Year 2012, George DeLeone ran the ball on first down …

In the Year 2012, two patients at a Kentucky dialysis clinic — a 68-year UK fan and a 71-year-old Louisville fan — got into a brawl over the schools' Final Four game. In the Year 2013, UConn and Cincinnati fans will do the same. Winner gets a free breakfast at Denny's. Loser stays in the Big East

Throw in copious amounts of eggnog and you can begin to appreciate the flavor of my side-splitting New Year's merriment. Yet this year, my funny bone has run out of "funny" after only four paragraphs. Upon reflection of 2012, my funny bone isn't connected to my sports bone right now, and maybe for a sports journalist that isn't an altogether bad thing.

I was watching HBO's "Real Sports" the other day when Bryant Gumbel asked each of the correspondents what they learned in 2012. Andrea Kremer talked about skepticism, about it being a journalistic credo, and the more she talked the more I kept saying, bingo.

Michael Phelps was voted the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. LeBron James was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. And while I have no quibble with either choice, I would have voted for Lance Armstrong or Joe Paterno as Sportsman of the Year. I'm not trying to be funny.

I'd argue that 2012 was the year that demonstrated that skepticism would have best served sport. I'm not talking about cynicism disguised as snarkiness. There is no shortage of that to be found on the Internet from the lazy and the embittered.

Nor am I condemning fans, unless they grow so blind to the objects of their loyalty that they ultimately refuse to accept any truths. Fans want their teams to win. Fans love their players. Fans beat up other fans who show up in their stadium in rival colors. Objective truths are not on their scoreboard.

Take a look at the four top sports stories of the year as voted by the U.S. sports editors and news directors in an AP vote: 1. Penn State; 2. Lance Armstrong; 3. NFL bounties; 4. Football concussions. The four of them scream for skepticism. They scream that there also was a lack of effective skepticism through the years.

Look, a skeptic is not an ugly human. A skeptic should be embraced as someone who demands evidence before accepting facts, not, like cynics, for dismissing them beforehand. In reflection of 2012, maybe we need fewer cynics and fewer fanatics and more skeptics.

Paterno died in a disgrace in January. His longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after being found guilty on 45 counts of child sex abuse. After former FBI Director Louis Freeh's investigation asserted that Paterno, Penn State President Graham Spanier and other school officials had covered up for Sandusky, the NCAA hit Penn State with huge sanctions.

The larger truth, of course, is that Paterno enjoyed an enormous cult following in Happy Valley for decades. He was held up as the paragon of student-athletic virtue. For years, he ruled virtually unchallenged by the media and by his bosses. He made his own rules. He meted out his own justice. He not only was in control of his kingdom, he was well on his way to authoring his own legacy.

The skeptic in me screams that somewhere along the line, if somebody had been a little bolder, if somebody had been willing to push harder — in or outside the media — maybe the monster Sandusky would have been taken down sooner and surely some of the Penn State myths would have been exposed sooner.

For years Armstrong attacked anyone who challenged his sanctity. For years Armstrong attacked anyone who claimed he doped while winning seven Tour de France titles and winning a billion hearts for overcoming cancer and leading his Livestrong charity.

Too few of us wanted to believe that in a sport filled with cheaters and phonies that Armstrong was just another one of them. Or if we did believe it, we wanted to justify the fact that he used the false pretense for a greater good.

Like Paterno, Armstrong did his best to grab control of his story. Like Paterno, Armstrong did his best to control his legacy. After a man's history stands for a number of years, it becomes more and more difficult to rewrite. There were lots of skeptics, to be sure, about Armstrong, and eventually it was skepticism and not, as Armstrong would suggest, jealousy and terrible people that finally led to the USADA's accusing him of doping in June. A few months later, Armstrong eventually dropped his fight against the charges. His seven titles were erased. He has lost many sponsors. He no longer is involved with Livestrong. Cynics would say he is a fraud. Skeptics proved it.

Look, I'm as big a sucker for the feel-good story as the next person. Probably bigger. I loved Linsanity. I loved Gabby. I loved Mo Farah. I loved Chuck Pagano. I loved R.A. Dickey. I loved Adam Greenberg. I loved Peyton Manning's return. I loved Victor Cruz. They lift spirits. They give us reason to smile in a life of adversity and tragedy. They give us a reason to believe that, in the end, the final score always will be: Good 1, Evil 0.

I loved the feel-good story of LeBron James, too. Some might use other words to describe his performance in 2012. Some remain cynical about him. Yet the way he was able to correct his mistakes of narcissism, shed his excesses of fame and past playoff failure, was no ordinary matter. I covered his Game 6 in Boston. Awesome is the only word. They pay journalists good money not to be fans of teams and players. They do not pay us to avoid being fans of greatness and no one should avoid LeBron, Phelps and Usain Bolt on that count in 2012. Proof is the answer to skepticism.

Which brings us to Bountygate. Look, we harbor no illusions about greed. Mankind will not be cured of it. And one need look no further than major college conference jumping, the travesty of NFL replacement officials and the NHL lockout to understand that greed is at the bottom of so many matters in sports.

Having said that much, there is no area that calls for more skepticism than with the NFL these days. The concussion issue strikes at the very core of the league's existence. Junior Seau committed suicide. Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself. In all, six NFL players committed suicide in the past two years. We need to know more, more and everything about brain trauma and the effects of performance-enhancing and pain-killing drugs. Former players are suffering dementia and Lou Gehrig's disease. Thousands of retired players have sued the NFL for failing to protect them from the dangers of concussions.

And now we have to ask ourselves, seriously ask ourselves, if the only reason Commissioner Roger Goodell initially came down so hard on the Saints for their use of "bounties" was because of the fear of even more lawsuits. When coach Sean Payton is "punished" by his owner Tom Benson for his role in Bountygate by getting a five-year extension worth $8 million a year, well, a cynic and a fanatic would say wins are more important than honor.

A skeptic? A skeptic would demand more answers from the best medical people in the world so that head injuries do not become the No. 1 story of 2013 and for years to come.

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