Watching LeBron James wilt like an unloved houseplant in the NBA Finals was a pleasure—a particular and peculiar sports fan kind of pleasure, one in which the giddy sweet sense of sheer, deserving schadenfreude came from knowing the soap operatic backstory, from "The Decision" and the Miami Heat's summertime boy-band player introductions to the literary wailing of author Scott Raab and the comic sans teeth-gnashing of Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. It was a real pleasure, but also entirely fake, perfect fodder for the hermetically sealed mindscape of the sports page, of fantasy leagues and ESPN, a place where taking a new job in a new city and then having a bad week at the office can make you a villain, like Iago or Saddam Hussein or History's Greatest Monster himself, Kris Humphries.
In that sense, the James story seemed dated.
For me, 2011 was the year that sports got real. By which I mean: Pretending that athletics somehow transcend or stand apart from the rest of human existence—that they can be a happy place, a forgetting place, a diversion from the woes of the world—became entirely untenable. Granted, we've been heading this way for while: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as Greek gods incarnate gave way to Congressional non-testimony; Tiger Woods, metaphoric savior-redeemer of American original sin and word racial disharmony crumbled under the weight of a bumper sticker-worthy voice mail sign-off. Still, it was relatively easy to view those stories as baubles, entertainment, episodes of Jersey Shore, only loosely connected to the world we live in.
And then came Penn State. Then came an avalanche of evidence and lawsuits illustrating the inconvenient truth that our would-be games are turning people's brains to tapioca pudding. Then came Taylor Branch's searing indictment of the long con that is college sports. Then came reality. Understand: I'm not saying that these stories are morally equivalent. I'm saying they all achieved the same effect. In our needy, frenzied, empty ranking and re-ranking, our arguing and number crunching, our emoting and symbolic tapestry-weaving, we use sports as a psychological coping mechanism, a sort of mass delusion. A playground free from the sordid compromises of everyday existence. So much for that. The sports stories that mattered this year were about real people. Real consequences. Real villains. They weren't even sports stories; truth be told, nothing ever is.
Hampton, what stood out for you in 2011?