8:28am

Sun December 29, 2013
Sports

A Year Of Surprises In Pro Sports

Originally published on Sun December 29, 2013 11:12 am

Transcript

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUDDEN: Since this is the time for year-end wrap-ups and review, we thought we'd survey the wide world of sports in 2013. NPR's Mike Pesca is with us. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hello.

LUDDEN: So many sports in not quite so much time. Mike, where to start?

PESCA: Well, I wanted to have a sort of rubric for how to do this. I mean, everyone, every league has a winner, right? So, congratulations to the Ravens, the Blackhawks, Red Sox, the Heat - how do you say - oh, what the Heat did in basketball is better than what the Red Sox did in baseball. So, I was kind of looking for the transcendent. Now, some things are just transcendentally weird: Manti Te'o has a fake girlfriend. Yeah, that's kind of unusual. I don't know what it symbolizes about sports in general. Another story like Jonathan Martin, the Dolphins player who was maybe bullied off the team, that's definitely something to pay attention to. I don't know if it's emblematic.

So, I wanted to pick up on maybe a bigger football story. Football, really, as a country our biggest pastime. The number I was thinking of is 9.5 percent. And that's the documented decline in youth football. And I think that's a very telling number. I don't think it is, you know, as telling as the fact that 25 most watched shows this fall have all been football games. But it's something that people who like football have got to wonder and worry about.

LUDDEN: Well, I wonder if it's related to another number: $755 million paid for thousands of injured players in a concussion-related lawsuit the NFL settled.

PESCA: It is. It certainly is. Parents worry about the head trauma and why not direct the kids to other, you know, great sports - lacrosse, soccer, whatever. And if there's going to be a long-term decline in youth sports...so far, the NFL can say, you know, even though we've had these lawsuits, it really hasn't affected us in any empirical way. Well, this is not only empirical, this is the future of their sports and they've got to take it seriously.

LUDDEN: OK. Let's turn to another sport. Have you seen anything transcendent in baseball this year?

PESCA: I'm thinking of A-Rod. I'm thinking of not just him but what he symbolizes, sort of baseball coming to grips with this steroid era, which is so not aptly names in steroids and performance-enhancing drugs were used before and now we're finding after in the form of human growth hormone. So, Alex Rodriguez faces this huge suspension. Who knows how it will play out. He'll probably get fewer than the 211 games he's facing.

But the other big thing, the Hall of Fame ballot this year, zero guys got voted into the Hall of Fame and there were some really deserving candidates based on on-field performance, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who were caught up in steroids and one essentially - one had a trial where he was found not guilty of lying to Congress and the other one admitted to doing steroids but said he'd never knowingly did them. But then you have other players, like Mike Piazza, who there is just no evidence that he did steroids, except for everyone's strong suspicion.

So, I guess baseball is trying to figure it out. That's ongoing. The thing I always point to though, is in football, the Seattle Seahawks, they are the most likely team to go to the Super Bowl this year. And no one has really raised the point that they've had seven players suspended for illegal drug use. The NFL doesn't disclose if it's steroids or what kind of drugs. But I just think that's so telling that in baseball we wrap ourselves up with angst and indignation and in football it's just game on.

LUDDEN: Well, speaking of performance-enhancing drugs, Lance Armstrong had a big year.

PESCA: So, this is what I always say about Lance Armstrong. I think the ire is there because of how Lance Armstrong defended himself. The absolute scorched earth policy that anyone who dared get in his way by speaking the truth, he would just destroy. And in a recent edition of ESPN Magazine, he said do I think I made a lot of mistakes? I know I did. Do I think I was way too adamant and forceful in the denials? Absolutely. Was I way too aggressive when it came to getting in people's faces or contesting their versions of events? Yes. And then he goes on to say why maybe his prosecution was selective. But, you know, Lance, I think it's right there. It's your attitude and the lives you ruined in pursuit of sporting glory.

LUDDEN: All right, Mike. Was there anyone spectacular, maybe a positive event, you would count as the greatest sporting moment of 2013?

PESCA: For me, it was game six of the NBA Finals when the Heat were down with a little over 20 seconds left by five and they made a comeback. And Ray Allen's just calm, I've done this a thousand times shot from the corner is sporting excellence personified in that one moment. The other event I was there for was when the lights went out in the Superdome. And I got to say, I ran down to where the nerve center of the Superdome was and I expected to be fighting with, like, 50 to 100 reporters to get the story. You want to know something? There were three other reporters there. Sal Paolantonio from ESPN - I have to give him credit - two other ESPN crews. And I interviewed the guy trying to do the repair. And they hustled him out of there. And he had a bicycle. He had biked to the arena. And I just kind of couldn't believe - but when I thought about it I could - that there were hundreds and hundreds of journalists just sitting in their seat waiting for this to pass so the game could go on. I guess I and maybe Sal had a different definition of what the story was than the rest of them.

LUDDEN: And that's why we like having you out there in the field or on the corner, down in the boiler room, wherever you go. Mike Pesca. Here is hoping for lots of transcendent stories in 2014.

PESCA: Yeah, it was a self-aggrandizing anecdote, but I'm happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.