When you sit back and think about it, we really didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know about professional sports and its spoiled, over-indulged athletes. This was the year of men –- and women -– behaving badly, abusing their social media privileges with a lethal combination of narcissism and borderline racism, further dragging society into an alternate reality where too much access into their private lives still isn’t enough.
We’ve yet to truly master that whole “access” thing. We demand more of it, but often don’t like what we see when the curtains aren’t closed. Once the ball drops in Times Square on New Year's Day, we’ll remember 2014 as a year of sweeping social change -– some justified, some unwarranted –- a year in which sports conglomerates were forced to own up to their boorish behavior while a few underdogs climbed the ladder in hopes of ushering in a new era of parity.
These are the stories that caught our eye and dominated our news feed in 2014.
1. Cracks in the shield
The Ray Rice saga took the world by storm, a nasty commentary on the state of affairs in the NFL courtesy of a grainy security video in which the former Baltimore Ravens running back dragged his unconscious fiancée (who is now his wife) across the floor of a casino lobby in Atlantic City.
The bigger story in all this was the NFL’s inability to properly punish Rice and others who committed such heinous acts of domestic abuse. First, it was a two-game suspension, criticized profusely by anyone and everyone with an opinion on the matter, followed by a plea to the masses from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who pointed the finger at himself and the league for failing to “get it right” while announcing a new policy for handling future cases of domestic violence.
Then came the real video, the one of Rice slugging Janay Palmer with a right cross that would’ve made Gerry Cooney blush. The Ravens immediately cut Rice and the NFL followed suit by suspending him indefinitely, but the damage to the NFL’s reputation had already been done. The world called BS on Goodell, who claimed to have never seen the second video until it was released by TMZ.
The entire case and the subsequent mishandling by the NFL proved Goodell and others would go to great lengths to protect the league’s image, even if it means hiding key evidence and downplaying the severity of a serious crime.
2. Homecoming King
Minus the pomp and circumstance of “The Decision” in 2010, NBA star LeBron James announced in July he was leaving Miami, where he won two titles as part of the “Big 3” with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, to return home to Cleveland. This time James told the story through the pages of Sports Illustrated in a lengthy essay detailing his desire to come full circle and begin a new challenge by rebuilding his hometown Cavaliers into a legitimate championship contender, a process he admitted would take time.
James was almost universally applauded for what many felt was the “right” decision, even if it was eerily similar to what he had done four years ago by leaving the Cavaliers and heading to Miami for a better opportunity to win NBA titles. There's no doubt James saw the writing on the wall in Miami with Wade's diminishing talent and the decay of his supporting cast. He also knew returning to Cleveland would make him the good guy again in the court of public opinion following his epic heel turn in 2010 in which he gyrated on stage in a cloud of smoke and predicted, “not two, not three, not four …” NBA titles in Miami.
The reality is James bent the prom queen over the sink again without the decency of bringing a corsage, except this time it was on everyone else's terms, so no harm, no foul. Whether he actually wins any in titles in Cleveland remains to be seen -– the Cavaliers are currently fifth in the Eastern Conference -– but no other athlete in any sport commands this much attention for something as simple and routine as deciding where to play.
5. Don your gay apparel
This was the year to come out of the closet wearing shoulder pads or Adidas basketball shorts, not so much if you were the team owner or general manager who dared to pass up on signing or drafting a homosexual player.
Michael Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year in college football, announced he was gay just three months before the NFL Draft. That same month, Jason Collins, who had already come out of the closet in May of 2013, became the first openly gay athlete in major American professional sports when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets.
Collins played the remainder of the 2013-14 season with the Nets before announcing his retirement in November. Sam's journey wasn’t quite as fulfilling. The St. Louis Rams drafted him in the seventh round, but cut him at the end of the training camp. He caught on with the Dallas Cowboys, who signed him to their practice squad before eventually waiving him in October.
Most athletes praised Sam and Collins for having the courage to admit their sexual preference while still in the prime of their careers while some chose the opposite approach, including former Giants' running back Derrick Ward, who Tweeted that the video of Sam kissing his boyfriend upon learning he'd been drafted was “disgusting.” Then there was ex-Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who caught flak for saying he wouldn't have drafted Sam because of the distractions that would've come with it, creating the notion that perhaps some NFL executives might've done the same.
The line between evaluating a player based on his abilities and evaluating him based on his sexual preference and what his addition might mean to your locker room or clubhouse became blurred in 2014. We never did answer the question as to whether or not the world of professional sports and its oozing machismo is truly ready to handle openly gay players, but we did learn there's still a divide among those who approve and those who don't.
6. Yes, UConn!
No major college program dominated 2014 quite like the University of Connecticut, which won the national championship in both men's and women's basketball. The men's team won it all for the second time in four years, an improbable run for a No. 7 seed that barely beat St. Joseph's in the opening round. Twenty-four hours later, the women's team followed suit, capping a perfect 40-0 season with a 21-point win over Notre Dame in the championship game.
For the UConn women, this was their ninth title under the guidance of legendary coach Geno Auriemma, a particularly satisfying win seeing as though Auriemma had the pleasure of rubbing it in the face of longtime rival and Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. Who says chivalry is dead?
With all the talk of parity -– and lack thereof -– in professional sports, it's amazing how the sheer dominance of certain programs at the collegiate level is lauded, particularly in the case of UConn, which is undoubtedly the preeminent landing spot for any high school star with a hoop and a dream.
7. Revenge of the Nerds
You might not be a Kansas City fan, but you couldn't help but root for the small-market, underdog, bargain-bin Royals, who capped a tremendous 2014 with an improbable run to the World Series, winning most of their playoff games with a steady diet of October magic and raw, unbridled emotion.
Despite an Opening Day payroll of $92 million –- 19th out of 32 teams –- which is usually a death sentence in Major League Baseball long before the final frost melts away and summertime begins, the Royals won 89 games to clinch their first playoff berth since 1985.
Their run to the Fall Classic began with a come-from-behind win over Oakland in the Wild Card Game in which they rallied from a four-run deficit against October ace Jon Lester in the eighth and rallied again in the 12th to win it on a walk-off single by Salvador Perez.
The Royals then swept the Anaheim Angels in the Division Series courtesy of two 11th-inning tie-breaking home runs in Games 1 and 2 and swept Baltimore in the League Championship Series, winning the first two games on the road in their final at-bat. The magic ran out in the World Series as the Giants won it in seven games, but not before one final celebration in Game 6 in which the Royals pounded San Francisco, 10-0, to force the deciding game.
No matter what the Royals did once they got to October, the fact they even made it that far was a major victory for small-market teams everywhere, an accomplishment even more satisfying considering neither the Yankees or Red Sox –- typical big-spenders on the open market -– didn’t even make the playoffs. The Yankees spent more than $400 million in the offseason to win just 84 games, proving money can buy a good-looking centerfielder, but can't buy postseason magic.
The Royals might fall back to earth in 2015, but they carved their place in history with one magical month that won't soon be forgotten, a defining moment for every little brother out there who never beat his taller, older sibling one-on-one until he finally sank that winning basket.
8. These Hoes Ain’t Loyal
After years of thinly-veiled racism and slumlord conditions in his rental properties, it took a secretly-taped phone conversation between Donald Sterling and his money-grubbing mistress to sink one of the NBA's most vilified owners.
When the audio of Sterling's phone call between he and V. Stiviano in which he told his girlfriend it bothered him that she associates with black people and brings them to basketball games first went public in April, NBA commissioner Adam Silver acted swiftly, banning the Clippers' owner for life.
Silver's response made the aforementioned Goodell look like a twiddling buffoon in comparison. Perhaps Silver felt the need to make a major move given this was his first year on the job, or perhaps he caved under the wave of criticism from current and former players, along with everyone else on social media. Some wondered aloud whether or not Sterling's privacy had been violated. No one cared. He made a bigger fool of himself in an interview with Anderson Cooper in which he tried to apologize, but instead came off as a sex-starved hound who also suggested Magic Johnson's claim to fame was, “He got AIDS!”
Sterling initially planned to sue the NBA, but eventually dropped the charges and allowed for the sale of his team for $2 billion to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a hefty payday for all his troubles. The idea of imposing a lifetime ban on an 80-year-old racist who reportedly suffers from Alzheimer's might not mean much in the end, but at least Silver didn't need five months to hand down his punishment, only to change his mind in the face of intense scrutiny.
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