One of the unforeseen - and mixed - blessings of covering sports for a living has long been the need to become an instant "expert" in all kinds of areas.
Business, if you're going to write about contracts and negotiations. Law, if you're going to write about labor issues and athletes accused or convicted of crimes. Ethics, if you're going to make sense of the gray areas surrounding performance-enhancing drugs and the efforts to weed them out. Medicine, if you hope to get a handle on injuries, surgeries, and long-term effects of concussions. Sociology and psychology, for many of the other issues surrounding the games.
The word expert was in quotation marks for a reason. You do your research, you do your best, you move on to the next day's crisis. It makes the job more interesting and more humbling. After all, most of us set out to write about sports because we enjoyed them, or because we admired the feats of our most gifted athletes - not to understand salary caps and collective bargaining and the ligaments in a knee and the effects of EPO and dianabol and designer steroids.
Certainly, no one got into sportswriting to dwell on the issue of sexual abuse of children.
But that somehow has become the horrifyingly dominant story of a calendar year that cannot end soon enough. From the moment the grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky was released, that topic was forced into the consciousness of millions of people who follow sports and millions more who don't. For those of us who write about sports, especially in this area, the Sandusky story and subsequent bombshells have forced us to think about the unthinkable every single day.
That has been a terrible thing. It has been a hard thing. By now, though, I guess I'm hoping it can become a positive thing. Bear with me on that part.
There have been three major episodes over the last couple of months:
Sandusky's alleged abuse of a number of young boys, and the reactions of those around the Penn State football program, led to the removal of legendary coach Joe Paterno, the ouster of university president Graham Spanier, and criminal charges against two other administrators.
Before the fallout settled on that story, allegations against Syracuse basketball assistant coach Bernie Fine became public. Two former Syracuse ball boys accused Fine of molesting them over a period of years. There was more collateral damage: Head coach Jim Boeheim said some idiotic and regrettable things when the accusations became public, and it turned out ESPN withheld knowledge of these accusations for nearly a decade.
Most recently, Philadelphia media icon Bill Conlin suddenly retired after public accusations that he molested at least seven children in the 1960s and 1970s. The longtime Daily News columnist and baseball writer went from the high of receiving the Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in August to the unfathomable depths of being disgraced and despised for being accused of some of the most despicable acts a human being can commit.
It's hard to say what was more breathtaking: the sharp falls from grace of the alleged perpetrators or the concept that jobs such as assistant college coach and baseball writer gave these men the aura of unassailable power that may have enabled them to carry out such evil behavior and cowed others from stopping them.
If convicted, Sandusky likely will die in prison. Fine will never coach again. Conlin's career ended in shame and his legacy is destroyed. Nothing can be done to redeem their reputations.
If there is going to be a positive, it can be found in the bravery of the alleged victims. By stepping forward, by telling their stories, by attaching their names in some cases, they are shattering the silence that enables predators and shifting the stigma from the innocent victims to the guilty and their enablers.
By testifying in front of the grand jury, the victims in the Sandusky case sent a message to every predator: You cannot use fear and guilt and power to destroy people anymore. Those who see or hear something are much more likely now to do something.
The Sandusky case brought the Fine case, at long last, to public attention. And it led Conlin's accusers, frustrated by the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes, to tell their story to The Inquirer's intrepid Nancy Phillips.
While we have to respect the wish for anonymity that many victims have, we must celebrate those who willingly put their names out there. That important step toward removing the stigma from the innocent is also a step out of the darkness and into the light. This kind of predatory behavior lives in the darkness.
If the Sandusky and Fine cases forced sportswriters to go after powerful men and institutions, the Conlin case forced us to recognize that this can happen much closer to home - much too close for comfort.
That is the sad but necessary lesson of 2011, a year that cannot end soon enough.