Falling stars and strikes: America's year of shame

From drugs busts to the NBA season being delayed to sexual abuse accusations in college sport, 2011 in the US has been all about the off-field drama, writes Robin Scott-Elliot

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The Independent Online

There was one notable US sporting victory this year.

That it came in a courtroom is perhaps appropriate as much of the sporting conflict that has made up a turbulent 12 months has been removed from the field of play. Judges, lawyers and policemen have played as big a part as quarter-backs, back-stops and point-guards. It's been the year of falling stars and sporting strikes.

That tainted victory came a long way from home, in Lausanne, where LaShawn Merritt's legal team successfully argued before the Court of Arbitration for Sport – a dishearteningly busy body these days – that banning the Olympic 400m champion from defending his crown in London next year for a doping violation was unsustainable.

Merritt had been banned after testing positive in 2009 for an illegal substance he claimed he had ingested unwittingly while taking a penis enhancement product. He received a 21-month ban and under world anti-doping rules was also barred from the next Olympics. That was a penalty too far, said the CAS, and its ruling has rippled across this side of the pond with Dwain Chambers and David Millar now close to being allowed to compete for an Olympic spot.

So Merritt is likely to be in London, which coincidentally will be the most tested Games ever.

Drugs, of various types, have been a recurring feature of the last few months, from the inexhaustible Barry Bonds carrying on his deny-everything defence, and looking like he is getting close to wearing everyone else down in a case that in one form or another has been in progress since 2003, to Sam Hurd, the Chicago Bear accused of buying a kilo of cocaine from an undercover police officer.

Hurd has been under investigation since July, when he was on the books of the Dallas Cowboys. The wide receiver moved north at the end of that month, receiving a signing-on fee of $1.3m and a basic salary that started at $685,000 and rises by around $200,000 a year over his three-year contract.

Earlier this month he met an undercover police officer in a steakhouse in Chicago, where he is alleged to have said he wanted to buy up to "10 kilos of cocaine and a 1,000 pounds of marijuana" and the same on a weekly basis to distribute around the Chicago area. There have been reports that other NFL players were among his clients. Hurd denies the charges and has employed one of the lawyers who successfully defended Snoop Dogg against murder charges.

Bonds can have no complaints about his legal team, who have fought a relentless rearguard action. Four days before Christmas they paid $455 to lodge a one-sentence appeal over the conviction of the man who was once considered a Major League Baseball great for obstructing a federal investigation into steroid use in sport. In April Bonds had been found guilty of obstruction after giving an evasive answer to a grand jury in 2003 over whether his trainer had ever given him anything that required a syringe for injection. He gave a 146-word response. This month he was sentenced to 30 days of house arrest, community service and a $4,000 fine, but the appeal could see the matter not settled for another 18 months.

By that time baseball will know whether it has another damaging drug scandal on its hands. There were reports in October that Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers slugger and the National League's MVP, tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone. MLB does not declare positive tests until the arbitration process has been completed. Braun's appeal is to be heard next month and if the initial results are upheld he will be banned for 50 games. His representatives say they are confident he will be fully exonerated and claim a second urine sample did not test positive.

The 28-year-old Braun is one of the sport's brightest stars, for which he is amply rewarded. His Brewers salary is $6m a year – a ban would cost him nearly $2m of his 2012 pay package.

Money – via the salary cap – was at the root of the lock-outs imposed by both the NBA and the NFL this year. The NBA season did not get under way until Christmas Day and the 149-day lockout has seen each of the 30 teams wipe 16 games from their schedules. The NFL's lasted for 132 days until the league and the players' association reached agreement over a new collective bargaining agreement.

The delay, though, does not appear to have damaged the popularity of the NBA. If anything, absence has made the fans fonder. The opener between Boston Celtics and the New York Nicks attracted the biggest Christmas Day TV audience in the sport's history, while ticket sales and merchandising are up.

It is in college sport, the scale and importance of which remains alien to many in this country, that the grimmest and most damaging scandals have clouded the US sporting year. Two coaches – those in a position of greatest trust with young athletes – were accused of sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse. A football coach, Jerry Sandusky, at Penn was charged at the start of this month, while Bernie Fine, a basketball coach, was fired in November from his post at Syracuse – the accusations made against him were outside the statute of limitations. Both have denied wrongdoing.

The University of Miami had a number of its US footballers and basketball players given bans for accepting cash, goods and prostitutes by Nevin Shapiro, who is now serving a 20-year prison term for running a 'Ponzi scheme' investment fraud. Shapiro was involved in providing dubious funds to athletes and the university's sporting set-up for eight years. The university announced yesterday that it has paid back $83,000 it received "directly and indirectly" from Shapiro.

While Bonds, inevitably, and Braun, possibly, loom over baseball's prospects of a happy new year, 2012 does bring the Olympics. And come July in a swimming pool in east London, expect the Stars and Stripes to be fluttering regularly again over the heads of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, sporting icons who can restore America's pride.

Additional research by Tom Metcalf