By Howard Alperin – The recent Penn State football scandal has so rocked the sports world and regular news world that there have been moments when it seems this case is the most surreal the sports world has ever known.
Surreal in sports happens often on the field and in between the lines. Recently, there was last year’s World Series-Game 6, when one more out would have made the difference, or this past Super Bowl rematch when it came down to a last play.
Also, the explosion of Tebow mania and Linsanity had its surreal moments, as they led their teams to unlikely victories.
Record-setting moments like Usain Bolt in the 100 meters at the 2008 Olympics capture the public’s attention and create an aura of unbelievability, too.
Surreal is most bizarre, though, when not even a screenplay for a movie could have been written to match what actually happened.
Sometimes, the outside of the arena or off the field stories seem to be the most compelling and hardest to fathom. Which ones over the last 25 years or so have most affected American culture and have been the ones most difficult to accept?
#5) Magic Johnson contracting the AIDS virus. When it happened, it was like a death sentence as Magic confirmed in the recent documentary from ESPN. What made this story so surreal was that Magic was arguably the best basketball player in the world. The virus has not been recorded to have been contracted by any other players and very few athletes overall. He was the best of his craft and one of the best of all time in the history of basketball. He was also the most popular player with the biggest smile and engaging personality. What a surprise, so many wondered if he was gay or how he got it. He had to retire from basketball. He did come back though for the 1992 NBA All-Star game and 1992 Olympic Dream Team. This story has had a decent ending, as Magic has brought more attention to the disease and has helped to improve the lives of many who have had to deal with it.
#4) Pete Rose getting banned for life for gambling on baseball, starting in the late 1980’s, gaining more steam in 1989 and with a decision in 1991. He’s the only living player on the ineligible list for baseball’s Hall Of Fame. Pete Rose is the greatest hitter of all-time. He holds the record for most hits. His nickname is Charlie Hustle because he played the game harder than just about all other players. That was his reputation. He was baseball’s coverboy for years because of what he meant to the game. He was a manager for the Cincinnati Reds when he was found to have made his bets. Though, he argues he never bet against his team, he admits to the bets. This is so hard for so many sports fans because Pete meant so much to them. What’s rare about this and similar to Magic and others in this Top 5 is that he was the only one caught doing this. No other players have been involved with betting on the sport since him. Before Pete, there was the Black Sox scandal close to 70 years earlier in history, but, no other gambling scandals have really occurred with major star athletes since (Paul Hornung did gamble when he played, but admitted it and ceased to do it-Pete didn’t admit to it for a long time).
#3) Tiger Woods getting caught having sex on the side with close to a dozen girls while married with young children to raise. Starting late in 2009 with a car accident/rift with his wife over the Thanksgiving holiday and lasting all of 2010 and into parts of 2011, controversy swirled over the richest athlete and one of the richest celebrities in the world. This was a shocker because Tiger was not only considered the greatest golfer at the time, but many sports pundits considered him the greatest athlete of his generation. He had a string of years ranked number one in golf. He lost his wife in a divorce, custody of his kids, dozens of sponsorships and his golf game. He was the butt of jokes around the world because most of the girls were floosies. He risked everything for quick sexual encounters. Give him credit as he admitted to his mistakes and has since tried hard to make amends to his family, fans and to himself. His game has recovered some a few years later, but, he continues to go winless in majors. The stories still remain salacious and fodder for pop culture junkies.
#2) Joe Paterno completely losing his reputation in 2012 over the Penn State football cover-up for Jerry Sandusky, the child molester. The once winningest coach in college football history is no longer the winningest and died before he had to face this fact (He had more than 100 wins taken from him and the school by the NCAA). Sandusky took children onto the Penn State campus repeatedly and molested them repeatedly. He did so off the campus as well. It was discovered in 2011 that for decades Sandusky did this under the nose of head coach Paterno, who was most known for his integrity and his ability to coach the right way, following the rules and having esteemed ethics. The story involved a trial, a cover-up, many victims and sadness for one of America’s sports legends who fell completely off the pedestal and into mud. Paterno’s statue came down and his community was left devastated. It was so hard to believe all of this because this is the greatest coach, the one who always did things the right way and yet, he had his faults, nobody saw them, but they were major faults.
#1) Once considered the greatest running back in the NFL, O.J. Simpson led the police on a low-speed chase after he murdered his ex-wife and her friend in 1994. He was found not guilty in a 1995 criminal trial, but later found guilty in a civil suit. The criminal trial was the Trial Of The Century for many media outlets. It was so popular because O.J. was so popular. After his successful career in the NFL, he did lots of acting, commercials, hosting on sports shows and appearances on talk shows. He was a major celebrity and a major figure in popular culture, appealing to all ethnic groups. Essentially, it would figure that he had everything any person could want, but, this was far from the truth. He was a jealous man with low self-esteem who wanted to control others. Eventually, he got caught up in a Las Vegas robbery and now sits in a prison cell in Nevada. It is hard to compare any sports news story to the O.J. story, but Penn State came close this year.
There have been many other popular surreal sports news stories over recent history, including the Bobby Petrino and Ozzie Guillen stories from this year. The rape cases of Mike Tyson and Kobe Bryant were also big stories to cross over from sports to news.
Michael Vick doing hard time for sponsoring a dog-fighting ring may well deserve consideration for this list. Vick was at the top of his profession as an NFL quarterback and then gets busted for setting up dog fights for him, his buddies and others to gamble on. Dead dogs were found hanging from limbs of trees. According to many in the media and large amounts of citizens across the country, he had lost all sense of right and wrong. The shock was the dogs element because America is such a dog-loving country. Ultimately, this case was determined to have too much racial and ethnic bias and was not put on the list.
Overall though, these five above stand out and make the list as major, surreal, significan
t sports news stories for their surprise and for the personalities involved.
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