The overarching theme in American sports in 2012 may have been shame — the shame of the greatest cyclist in history, the shame of a college football program even as it buried its icon, the shame of our most popular sports league as one of its broken heroes took his own life. And yet amidst the sadness came bursts of triumph and greatness, led by the NBA's "King" and his long-awaited coronation. The top stories of 2012:
1. The Fall of Lance Armstrong
The American cycling legend had been dogged by accusations for years, but public sentiment finally turned against him when some of his closest teammates testified, in vivid detail, of the doping operation he led. Armstrong lost his endorsements, his place at the top of the Livestrong Foundation and his seven Tour de France victories.
2. LeBron breaks through
LeBron James had been called a prodigy, a superstar, a choker and a villain. After the NBA Finals in June, he gained a new label: champion. James, Dwyane Wade and their Miami Heat teammates hushed the doubters with a five-game victory over Oklahoma City.
Now that Jeremy Lin has settled into being a decent guard with Houston, it's hard to recall the nationwide delirium and delight that he sparked with an incredible three-week run for the New York Knicks last spring. Pouring in points and hitting several buzzer-beaters, the Harvard grad became a hero for both Chinese-Americans and Ivy Leaguers everywhere.
Pro football has always been a violent game, but fans were stunned by revelations (complete with audio!) that New Orleans Saints coaches paid their players to injure opponents. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended head coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis for the season, and banned defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely.
5. Cabrera wins Triple Crown
Forty-five years later, someone finally upstaged Carl Yastrzemski. Miguel Cabrera became baseball's first Triple Crown winner since 1967, leading the American League with 44 home runs, 139 RBIs and a .330 batting average, and helping the Detroit Tigers to the World Series.
6. The death of Joe Paterno
If the winningest football coach in major college history had died a year earlier than Jan. 23, 2012, his passing would have been marked with unmitigated fondness and admiration. In the wake of the crippling Sandusky scandal at Penn State, JoePa's legacy is much more complicated. In September, Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30-60 years in prison for repeated sexual abuse.
7. U.S. gymnasts strike gold
Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete ever and Missy Franklin made a big splash of her own, but the real stars of the London Games were the young women who brought the U.S. its first gymnastics gold medals since 1996 — and especially Gabby Douglas, who became the first African-American to win the all-around gold.
8. Junior Seau commits suicide
The connection between NFL head injuries and subsequent dementia and depression received horrific substantiation when Seau, a 20-year veteran and one of the most popular players of his generation, was found dead at his home in Oceanside. He had shot himself in the chest.
9. Freshman wins the Heisman
For the second year in a row, a quarterback playing in Texas came out of nowhere to win the Heisman Trophy. This time, a freshman claimed the award for the first time in history. Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel played the position with such flair that people started calling him simply "Johnny Football."