This sleazy year in sports was for mature audiences only
Sports fans found themselves checking the gossip sites as often as the box scores
It became clearer than ever that the private lives of famous people aren't taboo
On the field was less surprising: the Steelers, Lakers and Yankees all won titles
Stop right there. Before we allow you to read any further, we'll need to see some ID. A review of the year in sleaze -- oops, we mean sports -- in 2009 is a tale for mature audiences only. Some of the randy goings-on were mildly amusing: NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley got a traffic ticket last New Year's Eve in his haste to find a place for a little one-on-one time with a female friend. Others were deeply disturbing: retired NFL quarterback Steve McNair, a husband and father, was shot dead by a paramour in a murder-suicide.
McNair wasn't alone in his infidelity. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino admitted to an extramarital affair with a woman who later attempted to extort him. Baseball analyst Steve Phillips was fired by ESPN after his sexual relationship with a female underling came to light. Another ESPN sportscaster, Erin Andrews, was victimized by a "fan" who videotaped her, nude in the privacy of her hotel room, with a hidden camera.
Given the R-rated nature of the year's developments, it was somehow fitting, although disappointing, that 2009 ended with the biggest sex scandal of them all -- the astonishing story of Tiger Woods. By year's end, we were wondering whether the married Woods had as many secret girlfriends as tournament victories.
Think of 2009, then, as the year of men behaving badly. We may look back on it as the year that sports fans found themselves checking the gossip sites as often as the box scores, when the over/unders we speculated about didn't involve just the next weekend's football games, but the amount that Woods' wife, Elin Nordegren, might get in a divorce settlement.
Some fans protested that the focus on the steamy side of sports figures' personal lives was misguided, that the media delved too deeply into personal lives instead of concentrating on actual competition. But in 2009 it became clearer than ever that there is no going back to the days when the private lives of famous people were considered taboo. There are too many ways for sports figures' indiscretions to make it into the public domain.
When Texas Rangers' outfielder Josh Hamilton, a recovering alcoholic, fell off the wagon, cell phone pictures of him partying in a bar with several women wound up on the Internet for everyone, including his wife, to see. In a world in which technological advances have made it easier for all of us to spy on each other, it's not surprising that many sports celebrities couldn't keep sensitive information from becoming public.
If we seemed obsessed with the salacious side of sports in 2009, maybe it was partly because the action on the field seemed to far less surprising. Most of the major championships were won by the usual suspects -- players and programs that knew their way around the penthouse, having visited many times before. The Lakers, Steelers and Yankees, all with long histories of success, in each added another piece of championship hardware to their trophy cases. North Carolina in college basketball, UConn in women's hoops, and Florida in college football did the same, all of which were about as surprising as the sun rising in the East.
The year wasn't exactly filled with underdog victories, but that's not to say there weren't fascinating and notable individual achievements.
In tennis, Roger Federer broke Pete Sampras' record of 14 major championships by winning Wimbledon for the sixth time. Jimmie Johnson continued to be, in a sense, the Federer of NASCAR, becoming the only driver to win four consecutive Sprint Cup Series championships. While Johnson was one of the fastest men behind the wheel, Usain Bolt was the fastest on two feet.
In August, the Jamaican sprinter lowered his own world records by running the 100 meters in 9.58 seconds and the 200 in 19.19 at the World Championships. At 23, Bolt isn't much older than Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney "The Kid" Crosby, who was 21 when he became the youngest team captain to win a Stanley Cup, doing so with a seven-game victory over the Detroit Red Wings in June. In baseball, Joe Mauer of the Twins won the AL MVP and batting title with arguably the greatest offensive season for catcher in the history of the sport.
If you find yourself in an actual argument over whether Mauer's season was the best, don't ask Brett Favre or Urban Meyer to settle it, because they both had a hard time making up their minds. Favre played the Will-he-play-or-won't-he? game for the umpteenth time. He seemed ready to finally settle into retirement after his poor finish with the Jets in 2008, but by training camp he had changed his mind yet again, winding up in the Vikings' purple-and-gold. It was hard to argue with his decision after he led Minnesota to the NFC North championship and had his eye on his second Super Bowl title as 2009 came to an end.
Meyer suffered a brief Favre-like case of career indecision in the waning days of the year. No sooner had we learned of his plans to step down as Florida's football coach due to health issues, than Meyer, 45, changed his mind and decided to take an indefinite leave of absence instead. Gator fans were no doubt relieved for the moment, although they are no doubt hoping that Meyer doesn't become a serial flip-flopper like Favre.
But none of those athletes had as wild a ride in 2009 as the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, whose year went from one extreme to another in a different way.
A-Rod, the Yankees' slugging third baseman, had a 2009 that ran the gamut from embarrassment to elation. After an SI.com story by Selena Roberts and David Epstein that revealed evidence of his steroid use, Rodriguez admitted during spring training that he had used performance-enhancing drugs during his years with the Texas Rangers. But after starting at rock bottom with the scandal (he also missed the start of the regular season after hip surgery), A-Rod finished at the top, shaking his reputation as a postseason choker with a strong playoff performance that helped propel the Yanks to their first World Series title since 2000.
A-Rod wasn't the only star athlete who kept steroids in the news. Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games for a violation of baseball's drug policy. He was caught with a bogus prescription for a women's fertility drug that has been known to be used by steroid abusers to help balance their hormone levels. The Dodgers still won the NL West title, but Manny-mania wasn't nearly as rampant as the year before, especially when he proved to be a less dangerous hitter upon his return.
If sex and drug scandals aren't your cup of tea, perhaps you prefer mobsters. Disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy was released from prison, after which he wrote a book alleging that not only had organized crime figures forced him to give them inside information for betting purposes, but officiating in the league was biased and corrupt, with the calls often based on refs' personal agendas.
In other years, that might have been a blockbuster story, but it barely gained traction when there were juicier items that grabbed our interest. In a year so full of scandal, if Donaghy or anyone else hoped to shock us, they had to do better -- or is it worse? -- than that.