April 24, 2014

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Tim Dahlberg: Believe it or not, sports world has plenty to be thankful for

The bad stuff is easy. You read about it almost every day; hear it discussed endlessly by the talking heads on radio and television.

But if sports is a microcosm of society — and it is — then there’s a lot of good going on, too. And, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, here are some things to be thankful for this year that have nothing to do with wins and losses, the World Series or the Super Bowl:

• A COACH’S FIGHT: Circumstances. That’s what Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano called his health problems when he entered the locker room after a win against Miami a few weeks ago and addressed his team for the first time since unexpectedly being hospitalized just as his first season as head coach was beginning. The circumstances are that Pagano has leukemia, an insidious disease that’s difficult to beat no matter how hard you fight. In an moving speech that you have to watch to fully appreciate, Pagano vowed to dance at the weddings of both his daughters and to host more than one Super Bowl trophy before he’s done fighting. “It’s already beat. It’s already beat,” Pagano told his team.

• DRUG BUSTERS: It would have been easy for Travis Tygart and his investigators at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to simply give up on nailing Lance Armstrong. Federal prosecutors already had, and if they couldn’t build a case against Armstrong, hard to imagine the doping agency doing any better. But Tygart pressed on, eventually building a case that tore apart the facade Armstrong had created, detailing a widespread and systematic doping scheme on a level not seen before in organized sports. Yes, he took down an American sports hero and damaged his charitable work, but Tygart also sent a message that a level playing field is important. Sports will be a cleaner and better place because of it.

• BROOKLYN REBORN: No, the Dodgers aren’t returning. Suddenly, though, Brooklyn is a sports town again, thanks to a new, $1 billion arena and a Russian billionaire who parked his basketball team there. The New York Islanders will also be moving there in 2015, assuming, of course, that the NHL lockout is resolved by then.
• BRITISH INVASION: Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France, while Andy Murray became the first British man to claim a tennis major in 76 years when he won the U.S. Open.
Perennial also-rans, the British had a spectacular sporting summer the country will never forget, including a London Olympics that surpassed expectations at every turn.

• VIN SCULLY: He would be a national treasure, but the people of Los Angeles like to claim him as their own. For more than 60 years, Scully has broadcast the Dodgers, and his gift to the new Dodgers owners was the announcement that he will come back for at least one more year at the age of 85, calling games as he always does, solo in the announcer’s booth. In the interests of full disclosures, I was one of those kids in LA who went to sleep at night with a transistor radio underneath my pillow, growing up listening to Vinny.

• RORY TIME: For years, golf fans waited for a rival to the great Tiger Woods, only to be disappointed by every David Duval who came along. Rory McIlroy is the anti-Tiger, an accessible and grounded superstar from the town of Holywood in Northern Ireland who hits the ball incredible distances, all with an inner joy that Woods will never have. McIlroy has his own reason to be thankful, with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki as his constant companion.

• BOXING: Even if you don’t like the sport, you have to love the stories. Johnathon Banks learned everything he knew about boxing from Emanuel Steward, so much so that when Steward died a few weeks ago, Banks took over as trainer of heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. He was in Klitschko’s corner in Germany for his win over Mariusz Wach and then flew to Detroit for a memorial service for Steward. A few days later he was in Atlantic City, where he revived his own career with a shocking knockout win Saturday night over Seth Mitchell. That could put him in line for a title shot against, you guessed it, Klitschko, the man he trains. Only in boxing. “All I can think is how grateful I am for Emanuel Steward,” Banks said.

• LABOR PEACE: OK, the NHL is in lockout mode, and the prospect of another lost season is a gut check to hockey fans everywhere. But there will be no lost games in the NFL for much of the next decade, the NBA has a new long-term deal and the only thing owners and players in baseball are worried about is how many zeroes the new contracts have. And, of course, there are decent referees on the field again in the NFL, even if they do happen to swear at times.

• CONCUSSIONS: Good things are happening in the fight against the once silent epidemic of concussions in sports. Brains are being analyzed, millions of dollars are being poured into research, and there’s an awareness about the danger of hits to the head that could save lives everywhere from your child’s soccer field to the stadiums of the NFL. Unfortunately, it’s too late for thousands of former players who are paying for the blows to their head every day of their lives — something the NFL refuses to own up to.

• DEATH OF THE BCS: Our long national nightmare is almost over. The Bowl Championship Series is, for all intents and purposes, dead, killed off by a fan revolt at the age of 16. It will be replaced in 2014 by a four-team playoff that, while not perfect, will help legitimize the national championship game. Meanwhile, a possible Notre Dame against Alabama title game this season could be one of the biggest ever.

• OPPORTUNITIES: Forty years ago this summer, Congress passed and President Nixon signed into law a bill that changed sports forever. Title IX opened opportunities for women to play sports that were once unimaginable, and it’s a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. When Title IX was enacted, fewer than 30,000 female students participated in sports in colleges and universities, a number that has now increased nearly six-fold. Some 3 million girls participate in high school athletics today, 10 times the number who played sports in 1972. Women may never make big breakthroughs in professional sports, but the resources now devoted to female sports means your daughters and granddaughters can dream of doing things in sports they could never do before.

• SPORTS EXTRA: You pay for it more than you realize, every time the cable or satellite bill is due. The Yankees cost you money, and so do the Knicks. There are so many new sports networks popping up that each want their share of the pie that the bill will keep going up until customers finally revolt. What you once got for free now costs a lot, but what a bargain it really is. The variety of sports on television is astonishing, even more so to the generations that grew up before ESPN, when watching sports meant a few football games and Saturday’s baseball game of the week — and having to get up to turn the channel to watch it.

We’re living in a world where the options for sports fans are greater than ever. We can watch basketball on the decks of aircraft carriers, hockey on the infield of old baseball parks, and the NFL from soccer stadiums in London. Instead of being parked in front of a TV we can feed our seemingly insatiable sports fix on laptops, tablets and even smartphones. If that’s not enough, it’s easier than ever to have a little something riding on the game, whether in form of a wager or a fantasy team payout.

Still there’s nothing like a Saturday morning spent watching the kids play soccer or, at my house, a Thanksgiving Day street football game with relatives of all ages. Even in an era of amazing technology, there’s room at the local playground for a pickup game of hoops, and grass at the park to toss a baseball around.

So enjoy the turkey and the NFL on TV as well. Save room for the pumpkin pie, and yet another game to feast your eyes on.

There’s a lot to be thankful for.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.