If You Look Hard, Sport Still Stirs the Soul

I am not good with year-in-review summaries. A better idea is to look forward, not ass-backward, particularly when the 2013 exhaust almost choked those of us still fascinated by sport. Scandals, horrors and life-and-death matters vice-gripped America from the start and didn’t let go — Lance Armstrong’s lies, Aaron Hernandez’s murder rap, Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis muck, the NFL’s continuing head-trauma crisis, the Boston Marathon bombings, the bullying of Jonathan Martin by real-life Tommy Boy Richie Incognito, the public trial of an eventual Heisman Trophy winner who never was charged with a crime.

And on. And on.

As one who comes from a place of realism, and who knows sport is a multi-billion-dollar industry that should be covered as such by what is left of credible news media, I realize this is where we are in time: at the confluence of human competition, corporate greed and naked deceit. But I also know we’ll have rewarding stories in 2014, just as we did last year if you paused long enough to appreciate them.

Who can forget the Red Sox, with bromance beards approaching ZZ Top lengths, dedicated to soothing a city devastated by the bombings and completing a mesmerizing worst-to-first journey with Boston’s third World Series title in 10 years? Didn’t David Ortiz take your breath, wherever you lived, when he stood in front of a gigantic American flag, took the house mike at Fenway Park and told the fans, “This jersey we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox. It says Boston. … This is our f–king city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.” Wasn’t it perfect that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who normally would object to an f-bomb, would tweet, “David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today’s Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston”?

I’ll also remember LeBron James for shutting my mouth. He was marvelous in the biggest moments, reaffirming himself as America’s predominant athlete as the Miami Heat repeated as NBA champions. No longer could anyone deride James for fading in defining late-game situations, his regrettable role in “The Decision” farcecast or his investigation-worthy tank job against the Celtics shortly before fleeing Cleveland. Now, he was a proud conquerer who aspired to make meaningful, wider-ranging impact in a country that needs honorable sports heroes. Still just 29, after more than 10 years in the intense media spotlight, James never has been in trouble off the court and dares to embrace a plateau from which many modern superstars repel and hide.

He wants to be a role model. He likes to put his family in TV ads. He seems to have an image that is real, dare I say.

“I’m chasing something, and it’s bigger than me as a basketball player,” James said last week after he was named the Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year. “I believe my calling is much higher than being a basketball player. I can inspire people. Youth is huge to me. If I can get kids to look at me as a role model, as a leader, a superhero … those things mean so much, and that’s what I think I was built for. I was put here for this lovely game of basketball, but I don’t think this is the biggest role that I’m going to have.”

Just the same, it was a year when Peyton Manning, only two years removed from near-retirement after four delicate neck surgeries, passed for 55 touchdowns — double nickels — and put the Denver Broncos on the cusp of a Super Bowl. Like James, Manning never has been scandalized or bimboized. Like James, he crafts a positive public image via TV commercials, some of which approach comedic brilliance.

Yes, 2014 brings the possibility of terrorism and anti-gay unrest at the Sochi Olympics, along with a similarly problematic World Cup in Brazil. But I’m certain there will be uplifting stories, too. In spite of itself, sport does find new ways to mend inflicted wounds.

The scabs, somehow, always heal.