In honor of the season, we're making our "naughty" and "nice" lists, Santa-style.
By Amanda Rykoff
Naughty: Mets owner Fred Wilpon
There are so many reasons why New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon could easily be confused with Scrooge. From trashing his star players Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran in a May 2011 issue of the New Yorker, to his involvement with the Madoff scandal, to letting Reyes sign with a division rival as a free agent, there are plenty of reasons why Wilpon is the Grinch Who Stole (Mets Fans') Christmas. But those aren't the reasons why Wilpon tops my "naughty" list for 2011.
In September, we learned that the Yankees needed to renovate the ballpark for their Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre affiliate during the 2012 season. In a stroke of genius, the Yankees had worked out a deal to renovate the vacant Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium in Newark and temporarily relocate the minor league team there for the season. This would provide a much-needed boost for the Newark economy and give the Yankees a chance to reconnect with the prior home of the franchise's Triple-A team. But it required the Mets to sign off on the temporary relocation, because the Yankees and Mets share territory exclusivity.
According to Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star-Ledger, who broke the story, the Yankees contacted the Mets to secure permission for the one-year relocation. The Mets refused. The Yankees contacted the Mets again, and the Mets refused again. The Yankees even offered to allow the Mets to do the same thing if the circumstance ever arose in the future. Worried about the impact that the Yankees' Triple-A team would have on the Mets' major league box office, the Mets again declined. Really, Mets? You're worried about the impact a minor league team will have on your major league team for one season? Maybe the Mets knew at the time that the team it would field in 2012 would be missing Reyes. According to the New York Daily News, Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, reportedly contacted Fred Wilpon twice in an effort to get him to reconsider. He refused.
There will be no minor league baseball in Newark in 2012. Fred Wilpon, you are the Grinch who stole Newark's baseball Christmas. Congratulations.
Nice: The final day of the 2011 baseball season
I'm sure you are all thinking that I put this day at the top of the "nice" list because it capped off the historical collapse by the Boston Red Sox. While that didn't hurt, Sept. 28, 2011, tops my list because it was arguably the greatest regular-season day in the history of major league baseball. It reminded me not only of why I love baseball, but of why we love sports. Anything can happen. And pretty much anything that could happen on that night did.
Consider the following: Sept. 28 was the first time in the 17-year history of the wild card that teams in both the American and National leagues were tied for the final spot heading into Game 162. Four games were in play for two wild-card spots. In three of the games, we saw a team get down to its final out before somehow rallying to win. Two teams were down to their final strike. We saw three blown saves. Two extra-inning games. Two walk-off wins. And in the most ironic of all twists, Red Sox fans found themselves forced to root for the Yankees to beat the Rays in order for their beloved team to avoid an epic collapse and secure a playoff berth. It was, in short, BANANAS.
When the dust settled -- after the blown saves and the walk-off wins and the the "Oh my god, is this really happening, did I just see that?" insanity -- the Braves and Red Sox were out. The Rays and Cardinals were in. With the new playoff format adding another wild-card team arriving as early as next season (and no later than 2013), this might have been the last time we witnessed a night quite like that in baseball.
As I wrote on Twitter at the time, "Baseball. I love you." And Sept. 28, 2011, is one of the many reasons why.
By Jane McManus
Naughty: Conference realignment
Oh, college football, you've been very, very naughty. Here is a sport where the players are supposed to be amateurs, while the conferences and bowl games drive off with bags of cash faster than Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve. What makes the idea of amateurism even more far-fetched is the way college presidents have lined up like cherries on a slot machine for the BCS payout. SMU and Houston are now full members of the Big East, with Boise State and San Diego State in for football.
Because nothing says "love of the game" like flying your volleyball team from Texas to Massachusetts for a Tuesday night matchup. Now women at SMU who want to compete in, say, lacrosse, can rack up frequent-flyer miles along with academic credits.
If only science departments had this kind of pull, U.S. universities might have figured out a way to keep the polar ice caps from turning into a murky methane soup. Instead, those institutions of higher learning are chasing football dollars. Something has gone very wrong. At least in the NFL, the money is on the table, players are paid and everyone is benefitting from the system. Not so in the college ranks, where the players are paid in a currency they don't have time to fully use while tied down with their day jobs: football.
College presidents should have been looking for a way to reform a sport that subverts some of their most holy ideals. Instead, they lined up for the payoff.
Nice: Athletes who support marriage equality
Now, when I look at who has been very, very nice, there are plenty of worthy candidates. But I am going to cite a few people who tried to make professional sports a more tolerant place. It once was the case that if you wanted to insult a player, using a gay slur was a perfectly acceptable way to go. But a few athletes, like Rangers hockey player Sean Avery, Suns guard Steve Nash and Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, all tried to chip away at homophobia by coming out in support of New York's marriage equality initiative.
In each of the small video clips made for two advocacy groups, the three players express support for gay couples who want to get married.
"I treat everyone the way I expect to be treated, and that applies to marriage," Avery said.
He had to know there would be the kids in the back of the class giggling and calling him gay for supporting a wider definition of marriage, and good for him for not letting it stop him.
Some day there will be a player who comes out of the closet, or is outed before he is ready. I hope there will be someone like Ayanbadejo, Nash or Avery in his locker room to accept him.
By Adena Andrews
Naughty: Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, the first NBA player-turned-owner, deserves a lump of coal in his Air Jordans for turning his back on his NBA brethren during the lockout.
Throughout his playing career, Jordan stayed tight-lipped and shied away from sharing his opinions, so as to not offend anyone with buying power. His Airness was all about the Benjamins. Therefore it was no surprise, but still disappointing, when reports surfaced during the lockout that Jordan was leading the movement to negotiate an unfair deal for players while making owners richer. This is the same Jordan who, during the 1998-99 NBA lockout, fervently told then-Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, "If you can't make a profit, you should sell your team."
That player-first mentality was nowhere to be found in Jordan's recent actions. He wanted to bail out financially inept owners rather than have them suffer for their incompetence. Jordan also showed few reservations about locking out current players who market his brand. To him, they were just pawns in a master plan to fatten his wallet.
Jordan sat in his cushy front office, probably in some horrible dad jeans, dismissing the value of the sweat equity that goes into being an NBA player. For disregarding your roots and not assisting your brothers in need, I say, "Bah, humbug" to you, Jordan.
Nice: Deron Williams
And the award for time best spent during the NBA lockout goes to… Deron Williams. When David Stern laid down the lockout law, D-Will was one of the first players to hop on a flight overseas. He didn't wait around to see what might become of negotiations; he created his own destiny and in turn set a trend for the rest of the league. The decision also turned out to be a lucrative one for the former Utah Jazz point guard. Williams made approximately $3 million in just 15 games with his Besiktas team in Turkey. And to top off his great lockout season, Bestikas also retired Williams' jersey. Not bad for a summer job.
Now that games are on the schedule and fans are in the stands, a conditioned Williams is on an improved New Jersey Nets squad with a bright future, as Dwight Howard has his sights set on the Garden State. With Jay-Z and Mikhail Prokhorov in the Nets' front office, Williams also probably gets all the Rocawear gear and Russian vodka he can stand. For his forward thinking and hard work, Williams gets my "nice" award.
By Sarah Spain
Nice: U.S. women's soccer
This past July, a special group of women turned this usually soccer-snubbing country into die-hard fútbol fans. Most Americans couldn't have picked Hope Solo or Abby Wambach out of a lineup in January, but by midsummer fans were recounting their feats and wearing jerseys bearing their names. With their July 10 penalty-shootout victory over Brazil, the U.S. women's soccer team inspired a record-setting 7,196 tweets per second, including from some famous admirers. Guys like LeBron James, Tom Hanks, Aaron Rodgers and Lil Wayne all posted tweets about the strength and skill of these women, giving them props not for their looks or the fit of their uniforms, but for being real athletes and real competitors.
After the tournament, Solo competed on "Dancing with The Stars," making it all the way to Week 9 with partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Meantime, Wambach became the first soccer player -- male or female -- to win the AP's Athlete of the Year award, earning this year's honor as the top woman. There are plenty of people who have jumped off the soccer bandwagon since the NFL, NHL and NBA have started back up, but this summer's soccer heyday was great for the sport and for female athletes. Abby, Hope, Alex Morgan and the rest of the U.S. team dished out a powerful reminder that women's sports can be compelling, inspiring and entertaining. When Santa makes his rounds this year, he'll assuredly find these ladies on his "nice" list.
Naughty: Cowboys-turned-BearsLast offseason, the Chicago Bears raided Jerry Jones' cabinets, inking former Cowboys Sam Hurd, Marion Barber and Roy Williams. While none of the three inspired excitement among Chicago fans, there was at least hope that they could be good role players on a team that had made it to the NFC championship game last season. Williams got off to a bad start, dropping some catchable passes early in the season, then really did in the Bears in Week 13 with an unforgivable whiff that led to a Chiefs interception. Barber was a decent enough backup to stud starter Matt Forte early in the season, and when No. 22 went down, Barber stepped it up with some nice runs. Unfortunately, he committed a trio of errors that cost the Bears big-time against the Chiefs and Broncos. First, he negated an easy touchdown against Kansas City by failing to line up on the line of scrimmage, and then a week later he ran out of bounds by mistake, stopping the clock and giving Denver time to come back. Barber then fumbled in overtime and could do nothing but watch as the Broncos stole a victory. Hurd was a solid special-teams contributor for the Bears, but wasn't much of an offensive weapon, catching just eight passes. A few days before the team's game with the Seahawks, Hurd was arrested on federal drug charges, which ended his season. At some point, all three of these guys have blown it for the Bears, who will take a four-game losing skid into Sunday's contest with the Packers. Santa will be a busy man this year, giving out coal to all the athletes, coaches and schools that gave sports a bad name. And yet I have to believe there's a special place on his "naughty" list for these ex-Cowboys and their un-Bear-able performances in the clutch.
By Melissa Jacobs
Naughty: NFL refs
"You suck, refs!" is a common fan refrain in any sport that employs, well, referees. In no sport is this heard more frequently than in the über-popular NFL. And this year, NFL fans are more justified than ever in their complaints -- 2011 has been a banner year for referee incompetence. Every week brings a barrage of calls that are not only questionable, but objectively wrong. Just this past Monday night, illegal leaping was called on Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons as he tried to block a David Akers field goal attempt. Replays showed there was no semblance of anything illegal; it was a call that came out of nowhere. And one that set the table for a San Francisco touchdown.Another recent staggeringly errant call involved, not surprisingly, Tom Brady. Redskins linebacker London Fletcher was flagged for a personal foul call upon tackling Brady, who had slid late. The television replay showed a clean, legal, routine hit by Fletcher. Yet veteran official Jeff Triplette not only called the nonexistent personal foul, but also explained it as "a forearm to the head of the quarterback." Fletcher hit Brady in the shoulders. It was clear to everyone, even Brady, who on his radio show the next day admitted getting lucky with the call. The only confused person was Triplette.
My biggest issue with the referee situation is not the bad calls, but the fact that they never acknowledge their errors after the fact. It reminds me of a common problem I have in D.C. restaurants. I often order my omelets with egg whites and even throw in a cheesy "Oh wait, did I mention I wanted egg whites?" for good measure. But then when my plate comes with a yolk-based omelet, the server is indifferent.
That's somewhat understandable when you're earning a server's wages. But the NFL is a $9 billion industry. Incompetence and lack of contrition from officials is unacceptable.