Seven Silver Linings for 2007

For the true sports fan, amidst all the drugs, malfeasance, infidelity, greed and inhumanity -- hope is a most important thing.

What's so great about sports, anyway? Year in and year out, the bounty reaped by fans is predictably dire and distasteful: drugs, malfeasance, infidelity, greed, inhumanity. Regardless of the venue, country, or the athletes in question, the long and shameful shadow of scandal seems to eclipse the long-forgotten joys of athletic spectacle at every turn.

This time of year remind, when we're prone to reflection reminds us that, in the midst of our most morose ruminations, there remains the glimmer of hope. Often (as one Tiny Tim would remind us), it's a matter of perspective. And for the true sports fan, hope is a most important thing. Every season begins with it, and every season tests its resilience. The year 2007 was no different, prompting the following list of dark clouds and silver linings, which prove that, even at its worst moments, the promise of sports remains. God (or George Steinbrenner) bless us, everyone.

Dark Cloud: The BCS debacle. With its ongoing aversion to a formal playoff system in college football, the NCAA designed the Bowl Championship Series to produce an undisputed champion at season's end and eliminate the debate that inevitably accompanies the ranking of teams with identical records and differing opponents. Despite a baroque mathematical formula for "objectively" assessing teams, though, it's the exception, and not the rule, that's produced a consensus #1 team when all is said and done. The exclusion of teams like Missouri, Hawaii, and Georgia, among others in 2007, has only fanned criticism and bolstered calls for a definitive playoff system.

Silver Lining: Unlike other sports, the college football postseason is notable precisely because it incorporates more than the mere crowning of a champion. Half of all Division I teams are able to participate in these games, giving a greater number of participants the opportunity to experience postseason play. While such democratization may cheapen the games' relevance for purists, it multiplies the number of significant games, and significant moments, that the sport can showcase. Boise State's freewheeling victory over Oklahoma to begin 2007 is just one example of a non-title game that became an extraordinary event. For the vast majority of amateurs, who won't go on to become professionals, the bowl system likewise allows them a chance for something extraordinary as well.

Dark Cloud: The Chicago Bears lose the Super Bowl. A chance to recapture past greatness and cultural currency as the latest incarnation of Saturday Night Live's "Da Bears" was lost, as the team fell to the surgical quarterbacking of Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts. To the disappointment of SNL and Bears fans everywhere, the Bears' bid to return to the playoffs for another shot at the title similarly ended in failure.

Silver Lining: Tony Dungy wins the Super Bowl. In fact, both head coaches in this year's "Big Game" were African American, ensuring that, no matter what, the winner would make history. As the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl, Dungy, in his mild-mannered way, acknowledged the symbolism of his victory as a sign of progress in a league that, even so, retains a glaring disparity between its majority of black players and majority of white coaches.

Dark Cloud: Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team. Despite the nationally-broadcast radio show host's repeated public atonements for calling the team "nappy headed hos", the damage was done -- both to his career and to the girls in question. Nearly half a century after the Civil Rights movement, Imus' broadside was a stark reminder that racist stereotypes of black athletes can crop up in even the most public of arenas.

Silver Lining: Imus' firing, and the well-documented outrage that occasioned it, showed the power of moral indignation. Though some protesters (like Al Sharpton) were accused of politics-as-usual, this episode illustrated how to hit the powers-that-be where it hurts: in their sponsorship contracts. Imus has since been rehired, but advertisers stand warned about the consequences of where they spend their money.

Dark Cloud: Tiger Woods loses at The Masters. At the tournament where he has most publicly demonstrated his talent for the game, Woods disappointed throngs of gallery followers, and fans around the world, by finishing tied for second place -- an unfamiliar position for someone whose fame has been made by dominating major tournaments.

Silver Lining: Zach Johnson won, instead. The hitherto unknown Iowan Johnson thwarted fans' expectations of another dominant Woods performance, and at the same time introduced an element of unpredictability into the sport that had waned in the wake of Tiger's dominance. His victory gave hope to the world's underdogs, an improbable feat that is likely to soon fall into the hands of Disney's feel-good sports movie franchise.

Dark Cloud: David Beckham's MLS debut a bust. Despite proclamations that he was "coming to make a difference", Beckham's impact on his team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, could hardly be measured on the field. He arrived to LA with an ankle injury, and in short order sprained his knee. His attendance at Hollywood parties with wife Victoria seemed to occasion more coverage than his actual soccer playing in the US.

Silver Lining: Though he may not be the single-handed savior of American soccer, his presence certainly raised the sport's profile in a land dominated by football, baseball, and basketball. In a country that routinely exports its own sports to other parts of the world, Beckham's presence could very well signal a welcome reversal of that trend, perhaps catching the infamously solipsistic American sports fan up with the rest of the world.

Dark Cloud: Barbaro dies/Michael Vick is arrested. After dominating the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro suffered a broken right leg in the Preakness, which eventually caused him to be put down. For his part, Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in jail for running an illegal dog fighting ring, as well as orchestrating the killing and disposal of some of the dogs.

Silver Lining: The true silver lining of these stories may be yet to come: the concerted re-examination of the use of animals in sports. While Barbaro was mourned as a national hero, and Vick publically reviled far and wide, the connection between these two events has yet to be made on a significant scale. If we love Barbaro and hate Michael Vick that much, shouldn't there be more than kneejerk emoting going on? How did these situations arise? Who profits from them? A more thoughtful approach than idolizing and demonizing has yet to emerge, but it should.

Dark Cloud: The Mitchell Report. The latest, blackest eye for baseball came in the form of this congressional report, which paints a picture of widespread, systematic abuse of performance-enhancing drugs throughout the sport. Players, management, and owners are all accorded part of the blame, indicating that nothing short of a comprehensive overhaul is needed to cleanse the sport in the eyes of its fans.

Silver Lining: Only a cynic would suggest that even bad publicity is still publicity. For baseball, however, that the country cares enough to devote government resources to indentifying its problems reflects that the sport, however tarnished, remains a national priority. As opposed to cycling or track and field, sports that are similarly troubled by doping, baseball's problems are not met with the cold shoulder of indifference, but the warm embrace of congressional oversight. This kind of attention should remind all involved that now, more than ever, is the time for baseball to get its house in order, while the country still seems to care about its condition.

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