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.
"I think there is a disillusionment there, but I think it's reality. We haven't seen behind the curtain before," said Jarrod Chin, director for training and curriculum at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "We've used sport as a way to ignore problems. But now what we're seeing is they exist there, too.
"That's what makes it the worst year in sports. What people are coming to realize is the thing we thought was such a great escape has a lot of the same issues we're trying to escape from."
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 X's 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.
Sandusky has denied the allegations, telling NBC and The New York Times that he showered and horsed around with boys but never sexually abused them. An emotional and lurid trial is a safe bet for 2012.
The shock of the initial charges quickly turned to anger as details emerged that Penn State officials -- Paterno included -- knew of an alleged assault in 2002 but never called police.
Receivers coach Mike McQueary testified that, as a graduate assistant, he believes he saw Sandusky raping a boy of about 10 or 12 in the Penn State showers. McQueary reported the incident to Paterno, who in turn told Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and university vice president Gary Schultz.
Though Paterno said McQueary was not as explicit in his description of what happened as he was in his grand jury testimony, criticism over the now 85-year-old coach's failure to do more intensified before Penn State's board of trustees fired him Nov. 9.
The dismissal came just 10 days after Paterno celebrated his 409th career victory, making him major college football's winningest coach.
"This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life," Paterno said in a statement announcing his intention to retire at the end of the season, issued a few hours before he was fired. "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."
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.
"The academic cheating, the recruitment violations, the gambling, taking steroids, that stuff has been a part of sports forever," Sailes said. "But the veracity, the seriousness (of the sex-abuse scandals) -- this is the last bastion of American innocence, our kids. So yeah, this is the worst."
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.
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.
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.
"We have had a heck of a year of scandals and disruptions," NCAA president Mark Emmert said earlier this month. "To have really good success on the one hand and all these grenades blowing up has been frustrating."
It wasn't much better in pro sports. NFL and NBA fans spent months watching players and owners bicker as they tried to divvy up their billion-dollar industries.
"I'd like on behalf of both sides to apologize to the fans," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said when the NFL and its players reached a new contract July 25 after a 4 1/2 -month lockout, the league's first work stoppage since 1987. "For the last five, six months we've been talking about the business of football and not what goes on on the field and building the teams in each market."
Hockey saw the deaths of three different enforcers (Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien) and a long-term injury to its biggest star, Sidney Crosby. Auto racing driver Dan Wheldon was killed in the IndyCar series finale in Las Vegas.
Troubling events in a year seemed filled with little else.
"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."