Even after all the turmoil 2011 brought to sports, what with the NBA and NFL players and owners huddling with lawyers and accountants, more unsettling reports of brains ravaged by hard hits, and college players being given cash, tattoos, access to strip clubs and pretty much anything else you can imagine, the games still mattered.
In less than two weeks, allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State and then at Syracuse shook both schools to the core, cost Joe Paterno his job and left us all with the searing question of whether our love for sports has helped corrupt what were once such simple games.
In sports, most years are defined by their triumphs. Golf's latest phenom, Rory McIlroy, winning his first major at the U.S. Open, perhaps. Or Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers following up their Super Bowl victory by flirting with a perfect season. Maybe Novak Djokovic's utter dominance of the tennis world, a 70-6 record that included victories at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
Even in years tainted by steroids or labor strife, there was always someone or some performance that stood tall.
Not this year.
The lasting memories of 2011 will be of mug shots and court rooms, millionaires squabbling with billionaires, and big red Xs drawn through the first two months of the NBA schedule. Sixteen games were pared off each NBA team's schedule because of drawn-out labor negotiations, while the NFL wasted its summer vacation in conference rooms and mediation sessions.
"We have this arena where sport is pure, sport has been sanitized," said Gary Sailes, a professor of sport sociology at Indiana University. "That's just not the case."
That illusion was shattered for good by the charges against former Penn State defensive coordinator and one-time Paterno heir apparent Jerry Sandusky.
Once cherished in the Penn State community for his ferocious defenses and apparent devotion to at-risk children, Sandusky now faces more than 50 charges of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 12-year span. Prosecutors say Sandusky used his Nittany Lions connections to groom his victims, and some of the alleged assaults occurred on Penn State property.
And it wasn't just Penn State. The very next week, two former ball boys accused longtime Syracuse basketball assistant Bernie Fine of molesting them.
Bobby Davis, now 39, told ESPN that Fine molested him beginning in 1984 and that the sexual contact continued until he was around 27. A ball boy for six years, Davis said that the abuse occurred at Fine's home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.
Davis' stepbrother, Lang, 45, who also was a ball boy, told ESPN that Fine began molesting him while he was in fifth or sixth grade.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was defiant in his initial defense of Fine, his top assistant since 1976, dismissing Davis and Long as opportunistic liars looking to capitalize on the misery at Penn State. But Boeheim's tone changed after ESPN aired a tape Nov. 27 in which a woman it identified as Fine's wife tells Davis she knew "everything" that was going on.
Syracuse fired Fine that day.
There also were plenty of scandals that, any other year, would have seemed reprehensible.
The NCAA came down on Ohio State, slapping the Buckeyes with that dreaded "failure to monitor" tag, banning them from a bowl game in 2012 and reducing scholarships for a series of misdeeds that had already cost former coach Jim Tressel his job and forced some players to sit out games this season.
And Tressel may as well carry a "Damaged Goods" sign after the NCAA hit him with a "show cause" penalty, making it almost impossible for another school to hire him.
Miami is sitting out the bowl season in hopes of sparing itself similar pain from the NCAA, which is investigating allegations a booster gave cash, cars, yacht rides, access to strip clubs, even prostitutes, to 72 athletes over a nine-year span. Twelve Hurricanes have already been punished by the NCAA, with penalties ranging from making restitution to lengthy suspensions.
Southern California was stripped of its 2004 BCS title in June for the shenanigans involving Reggie Bush, and defending champion Auburn and runner-up Oregon had to spend some quality time with NCAA investigators after questions about players' eligibility. And don't forget Tennessee, Boise State, Connecticut, West Virginia, Michigan, LSU and North Carolina, all of whom wound up on the NCAA's naughty list this year.
And then the latest BCS mess.
The BCS may as well stand for Bowl Controversy Series for all the grumbling and mumbling it manages to produce on a yearly basis, and this year has only furthered the argument for some sort of a playoff in college football. Despite already losing to LSU once, Alabama will play the top-ranked Tigers in a Jan. 9 title game. Never mind that Oklahoma State had three wins against teams in the final BCS top 15, compared with just one for Alabama. Or that the Cowboys' only loss came in double overtime at Iowa State, one day after Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and an assistant coach were killed in a plane crash.
Michigan State was relegated to the Outback Bowl while Michigan is headed to the Sugar Bowl despite the Spartans' superior ranking and the fact they beat the Wolverines. Boise State was banished to the MAACO Bowl because of a 1-point loss to TCU.
"That's the system," Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham said. "It's not fair. Life isn't fair, but that's how it is."
Tell that to NFL and NBA fans, who spent months watching players and owners bicker as they tried to divvy up their billion-dollar industries.
Hey, at least the NFL had the good sense to settle its labor war before any of the season was lost. The NBA finally tipped off on Christmas Day after reaching agreement on a 10-year deal that, so far, seems only to have produced more gripes.
The NBA locked the players out for 161 days, insisting a new deal was necessary because owners were losing buckets of money — $300 million last season alone and hundreds of millions more in the years before that — and small-market teams could no longer compete with free-spending franchises like the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.
Hockey, meanwhile, is struggling to balance its fast, physical play with growing evidence that hard hits can cause long-lasting damage. NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby has played only eight games since January because of the lingering impact of hard shots.
Equally sobering were the deaths this year of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien.
Auto racing mourned the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who was killed Oct. 16 in a wreck. It was IndyCar's first fatality in five years.
"In our society we create these myths around athletes and athletics," said Sport in Society's Chin. "But they're myths, and that's the whole issue."