GORDON WHITE: Recession Can Deliver Big Blow to Sports
This year in sports opened on a chilly but cheerful note as the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1, in a unique outdoor National Hockey League game before 74,000 people filling Ralph Wilson Stadium during a New Year's Day snow storm in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Now sports circa 2008, involving troubled athletes past and present, is drawing to a disconcerting conclusion like the final act of a tragic opera while the economic recession threatens the very existence of some sports.
Thirteen years after he was acquitted of a double murder, O.J. Simpson, the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, was sent off to a Nevada state prison, Dec. 5. He will serve at least 9 years because of a bungled robbery and kidnapping in a Las Vegas hotel room in September 2007.
Plaxico Burress, the New York Giants' wide receiver who scored the winning touchdown in last February's Super Bowl XLII, is facing the possibility of a stiff jail sentence next year because he shot himself in his right thigh last month while drinking at the Latin Quarter, a famous New York City nightclub. Burress was charged with illegal possession of a weapon, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York said he wanted Burress punished severely.
Early this year another superhero was disgraced when Roger Clemens, who pitched 354 Major League Baseball victories, failed to convince many people that he did not use performance-enhancing drugs when he appeared on a January CBS "60 Minutes" program and then at a February Congressional hearing.
As the curtain falls on 2008, the current recession has already taken a big toll on sports in recent weeks and threatens to do more financial damage.
The National Football League, thought to be the most stable professional sports league in the world, announced last week that it will be letting 150 of its 1,100 staff members go after Super Bowl XLIII, Feb. 1. The National Basketball Association is eliminating 80 positions and Major League Baseball is releasing 20 employees from its Internet program.
The Honda Motor Company dropped out of Formula One auto racing last month after 45 years competing on that extremely expensive international circuit. The Arena Football League is contemplating dissolution as a couple of its teams folded.
Locally, the future of the Carolina Sandhills' primary industry, golf, is in serious trouble as tourism, retail equipment sales and tee times are expected to suffer greatly because money for those items comes from corporate and personal discretionary spending, the first thing to be cut back or eliminated when budgets get squeezed.
Both the men's and women's golf tours face problems as banks and other sponsors are going through hard times. Sponsorships of bowl games, tennis tournaments and many other athletic events are similarly subject to fiscal difficulties.
Even the names of stadiums may be changed because companies that pay millions of dollars for such rights can't come up with the fees. For instance, how can Wells Fargo accept a big Federal bailout and then have its new acquisition, Wachovia, continue to pay money to have its name on the Wachovia Center in Raleigh? Citigroup also took a big bailout while still planning to pay millions of dollars to have its name on the New York Mets' new stadium that opens next April.
Despite these sour chords of financial stress, 2008 provided the stage for some of the most memorable athletic events in years, particularly individual feats by Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal and Michael Phelps.
This was also a year replete with the usual number of surprises and big upsets, starting with Super Bowl XLII when the Giants defeated the previously undefeated defending NFL champions, the New England Patriots, 17-14. The World Series also had the unexpected as the Tampa Bay Rays went from worst in the American League East in 2007 to first in 2008. Then the Rays won the AL playoffs but lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, 4 games to 1, as rain soaked the final three WS games in Philadelphia.
A big surprise came Feb. 4 when Bobby Knight suddenly retired as the Texas Tech basketball coach in mid-season, handing the job over to his son, Pat. Bobby Knight ended a 43-year career as a head basketball coach at Army, Indiana and Texas Tech during which he set a major college record with 902 victories.
Another surprise came in horse racing's Belmont Stakes. Big Brown won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes rather handily so that he entered the Belmont Stakes as odds-on favorite to become the first winner of the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Troubled by a split hoof and possible breathing difficulties, Big Brown never had a chance in the Belmont and finished last when his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, pulled up the bay colt long before the final turn.
Big Brown's Kentucky Derby victory was followed within seconds by tragedy for Eight Belles, the filly that finished second to Big Brown by five lengths. While pulling up after crossing the finish line, Eight Belles broke both of her front ankles and had to be put down on the track.
A mighty heroic but winning effort at the United States Open by Tiger Woods, the world's best known athlete so far this century, was followed by the No.l golfer in the world stepping aside for the second half of the season.
Shortly after the U.S. Open Tiger underwent extensive surgery to repair his long damaged left knee. It was the fourth time he had surgery on that knee, an operation that required a lengthy rehabilitation period that has sidelined Tiger for months.
Tiger limped his way around 91 holes in the U.S. Open before he beat Rocco Mediate on the 19th extra hole in Monday's playoff between the two golfers.
Two months earlier, Tiger finished runner-up to Trevor Immelman of South Africa in the Masters. Just 48 hours after the Masters, Tiger had arthroscopic surgery on that left knee. This patched him up and enabled him to compete in the United States Open at Torrey Pines in California, a course that Woods virtually owns.
He seems to win every time he steps on that course overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But he had to come from a stroke back to catch Mediate on the 72nd hole and force a Monday playoff at the Open Tiger won for his 14th major victory and third U.S.Open title.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland successfully defended his British Open title at Royal Birkdale and then won the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills in Michigan. But he and Sergio Garcia of Spain did not perform as well as expected for Europe during the Ryder Cup competition on the Valhalla G.C.
The United States team, under Captain Paul Azinger, regained the international golf trophy from Europe which won the last three Ryder Cup team matches. Boo Weekley, Hunter Mahan and J.B. Holmes of the U.S. did not lose a match while Jim Furyk and Anthony Kim gained key victories for the U.S. in late matches that nailed down the Ryder Cup for the Americans.
Meanwhile, Woods' good friend, Roger Federer, was unable to hold his grip on the No. 1 world ranking in tennis. He failed to make the finals in the Australian Open and then was beaten for the third year in a row in the final of the French Open by Rafael Nadal as these two carried on what some experts consider to be the greatest sustained rivalry in tennis history. Federer was obviously troubled by his struggle to recover from a winter onset of mononucleosis.
Spain's Nadal met Switzerland's Federer again in the Wimbledon final that Federer had won for the last five years. But this time, in what many consider will go down as the greatest tennis match in the history of the sport, Nadal beat Federer in five long sets, with the final set going to 9-7. The rain-interrupted match lasted more than four and one half hours.
Then Federer won the United States Open at Flushing Meadow for the fifth year in a row without having to face Nadal during the tournament. But Nadal ended the year as the No. 1 ranked men's tennis player in the world, replacing Federer.
Venus Williams whipped her young sister, Serena, in the Wimbledon women's final in two straight sets to win her fifth All-England title. Then Serena defeated Venus in the quarter-finals of the U.S.Open in New York before going on to win her third U.S.Open championship.
The third most memorable individual effort of 2008 and possibly the best came during the Beijing Olympics when Michael Phelps, the 23-year-old from Baltimore, set an Olympic gold medal record on August 17 by swimming the third leg of the winning American 4 X 100 medley relay for his eighth gold medal of these Olympics. That was also Phelps' 14th gold medal in two Olympics, a record for any individual Olympian.
Phelps garnered his first seven Beijing gold medals in 4 X 100 individual relay; 4 X 100 freestyle relay; 200 meter freestyle; 200 meter butterfly; 4 X 200 freestyle relay; 200 meter individual medley and 100 meter butterfly. He set or helped set a world record in seven of his gold medal performances and set an Olympic record in the 100 meter butterfly.
Not usually one to go along with the crowd when naming my selection for athlete of the year, I will break from my own modus operandi this time and join in the chorus of those who loudly acclaim Phelps as the 2008 Athlete of the Year. His is such a rare and outstanding accomplishment that there is actually no sensible alternative to Phelps as the No. 1 athlete this year.
He is apparently planning to go for nine golds in 2012. I hope he makes it.
The United States came away pleased with Phelps and some other athletes in these Olympics but unhappy with some performances, particularly unexpected failures in track and boxing. Yet Americans won the total medal count with 110 while the host Chinese, led by their outstanding divers and gymnasts, won the largest number of gold medals with 51. The U.S. had 36 gold, 38 silver and 36 bronze medals.
As our year closes down, not all is gloomy hereabouts as the North Carolina Tar Heels won the National Collegiate Athletic Association women's soccer title by upsetting the defending champion, Notre Dame, 2-1, a week ago.
North Carolina's men's basketball team is currently ranked No. 1 while many folks talk of these powerful Tar Heels becoming the first undefeated team to win the NCAA title since Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were unbeaten on their way to the NCAA crown.
Of course, there is a long way to go and last April North Carolina reached the Final Four only to lose to the eventual champion, Kansas, in the semi-finals, April 5.
The Boston Celtics, who won their 17th NBA title last June but first since 1986, seem headed toward another as they are off to a very good start this season.
While many folks wonder where their next meal is coming from, there is that big exception to the recession gloom hanging over sports. It is that island of sports mega bucks, Team Steinbrenner (aka, the New York Yankees). After failing to make the AL playoffs for the first time in 14 years, the Yankees are determined to buy and then play their way into the World Series.
Suffering from a poor pitching staff that had but one really successful starter last season, the Yankees nailed down the two leading free agent pitcher available this winter. First they got the 2007 A.L. Cy Young award-winning left-hander, C. C. Sabathia, to sign a 7-year deal for a mere $161 million. This is a record sum for a major league pitcher.
Three days later the Yanks signed A.J. Burnett to an $82.5 million five-year contract. The right-hander, who pitched for the Florida Marlins and Tornoto Bluejays, had a career-high 18 wins for Toronto last season and an AL-high of 231 strikeouts. But he comes with a history of injuries.
There is no recession in Steinbrenner's world. The Yanks hope to get as much as $2,500 for the best seats in their new Yankee Stadium that will open next season. Steinbrenner and company may have loads of cash but do their fans have money for Yankee tickets now that a recession has set in?
Then there are those we say goodbye to as the year winds down, although most of the retirees will only be moving from the competitive fields to other business interests such as Bobby Knight who is now doing excellent work as an ESPN basketball commentator.
Annika Sorenstam, 38 years old, ended her magnificent career during which the Swedish golfer won 90 professional tournaments, 72 of which were on the American LPGA tour and 10 of which were major tournament victories. She will be long remembered in the Sandhills for winning the U.S.Women's Open at Pine Needles in 1996.
Two great major league pitchers, Greg Maddux, 42, and Mike Mussina, 40, decided to hang it up after the 2008 campaign. Maddux is best known for his pitching with the Atlanta Braves when he won four consecutive Cy Young Awards, 1992--1995. Yet Maddux started with the Chicago Cubs and ended with the Los Angeles Dodgers and leaves with 355 victories, the most by any living pitcher and just one more than Roger Clemens.
Mussina, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, has 270 victories in his career and never won 20 games in a single season. However, he heads into the sunset after the best season in his career as he won 19 games for the Yankees in 2008.
There is one other person whom I must acknowledge as a real super winner in 2008. He is a long-time friend and a fellow cancer survivor, Seve Ballesteros, the 51-year-old Spaniard who was released from a Madrid hospital last week after more than two months during which he underwent numerous surgeries to remove a malignant brain tumor.
This dynamic athlete who scrambled for his golfing life time and time again with outstanding success now faces a lengthy recovery process. He is determined to handle this next problem just like he did when he made his most famous recovery shot from a car park for a birdie en route to winning the 1979 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Upon leaving the hospital, Seve expressed the feelings of every cancer survivor when he said, "Now I will be able to play the mulligan of my life."
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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