Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Reigning In 2008

                Fifteen Months ago, I wrote my first piece for the Kent News (and indeed the first to appear in this space) on the dismal year that filled the past twelve months.  Since that time, quite a bit has changed.  In fact many have editorialized in the past month or so that for all its shortcomings in terms of well, pretty much everything else, 2008 may have been the greatest year in the history of sports.  I hate to burst the collective bubbles of both SI and ESPN, but it hasn’t been nearly as great as they have claimed.  Call me a picky if you want, but in truth 2008 left plenty to be desired.

                Make no mistake, there were plenty of great moments in 2008, but there were drawbacks to each which have been ignored by an overly sentimental media.  Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt personified athletic achievement in Beijing.  While Phelps garnered most of the attention stateside, to me Bolt deserves to be admired in the same light.  Both athletes took their sports to another level in brilliant and memorable displays of greatness in their fields.  Without taking anything away from either man though, truth be told these were more of flash in the pan events in the larger sports world.  While both were achievements that will have a timeless status in their respective sports, the quadrennial interest of the mainstream in swimming and track and field prohibits 8 gold medals or multiple world records from being truly transcendent achievements.  The simple fact that neither athlete will likely compete in their sport for the next year is evidence of this.  The same is true for the Wimbledon final, as tennis was quickly put on the backburner just weeks later (can anyone name the winner of the Australian Open?).

Also in 2008, Tiger Woods reminded us that he is the greatest golfer in history, and that to suggest otherwise is foolish.  The 2008 US Open was truly one of the greatest golf tournaments ever played, with an everyman underdog challenging an infallible, once in a generation force of nature.  Woods, even on one leg was able to gut out a win in a performance that no one who witnessed it will soon forget.  As for the Open itself, there is really nothing negative that I can say about it.  On the other hand, that was just one week in what was otherwise an extremely boring season for Americas fifth most popular sport.  The fact is that in the current climate of the PGA tour, there is only one attraction.  That is Tiger Woods, and with him out of action for July and August, most of the season turned out to be forgettable, save one memorable weekend.  Once again, this was a moment of greatness, but not actually a great golf season.

                All of these were great moments, make no mistake, but all four also happened outside of the realm of the four major sports.  Much was made about the Super Bowl, but really aside from one catch it was an extremely sloppy game.  Aside from one timeless highlight, even if we still aren’t ready to admit it yet as a nation, it would have been much more memorable to see New England complete the 19-0.  As for the 08 regular season, the most enduring story will be one not of greatness, but of failure.  The 0-16 Detroit Lions were definitely the most compelling story in a league that lacked a single memorable team once Tom Brady was replaced in New England.   

Then there was the other story in the NFL…Brett Favre.  My distain for the coverage that this received is well documented, so I will keep this short.  Essentially all other stories were ignored so that ESPN could cover a past his prime quarterback go back on his word and break the hearts of an entire state.  What was the end result?  None of the teams involved in the saga made the playoffs.  Riveting!

                Sure, the NBA saw an old rivalry rekindled and the MLB saw a true worst to first story, neither of those things were unique.  The reason for the interest in the finals was really based on history.  This Lakers-Celtics finals was certainly entertaining, but they have a ways to go to reach Magic-Bird levels of compellingness.  And while the Rays were compelling, they were no more so than the Braves of the early 90s, probably less so, as the Atlanta team didn’t go ignored by its city until mid September.

In the other major sports, the Wings won the cup, but no one really seemed to notice.  A two loss team took the National Championship and the only compelling theme of the 08 season was that no one could agree on anything regarding the BCS except that there won’t be a true, undisputed champ.

Finally, the most compelling thing about sports is the players.  Our peers, as humans (sort of), who accomplish the things that we only dreamed of accomplishing are at the end of the day, the reason that we tune in.  The fact is the two breakout athletes in 2008 were a swimmer and a runner who we won’t hear from again for (at best) four years, and even if we do, they will be past their primes at that point.  This was the main shortcoming of 2008. Even 2007 saw LeBron, Sid, and Ovie take their games to another level.   In the four major sports, Matt Ryan was the only youngster that established himself as a star in 08, but even the most hard core Falcons fans would stop short of calling him a transcendent talent.

So sorry to hate on 08, but someone had to do it.  Before you go off thinking that I am a morbid, impossible to please, hardened skeptic, you should know that I really did enjoy 2008.  There were indeed plenty of memorable moments (getting a gold, silver and bronze in my three fantasy football leagues for instance).  My only point is that we shouldn’t get as carried away as we have.  As many great moments as 2008 saw, the fact is we only had one compelling regular season in the sports we actually care about, and that was due to league wide mediocrity.  2008 was as electrifying as any year, but to call it the best ever is jumping the gun.

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