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2015: An almost great year in sports

Jordan Spieth came up short of completing golf’s “grand slam” this year.
Jordan Spieth came up short of completing golf’s “grand slam” this year. The Associated Press, file

No cheering in the press box. Root for the story.

They’re commandments of sports journalism that sometimes puzzle fans, but which reporters themselves have stuck to for decades.

Their meaning is that, first and foremost, reporters shouldn’t be taking sides while covering a game and, while maintaining a professional relationship with sources on their beats, what they should pull for is not a particular team or individual but the story that will read, sound or look best.

And by that standard, 2015 was — by and large — a bust. Why? Because when it comes to the field of play, what consumers tend to want the very most from sports are stories about human achievement.

Example A: Tiger Woods. The impact on golf’s TV ratings when Woods is in the field on tournament weekend are well documented — they soar. Woods, of course, is still chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 victories in the majors despite injury and scandal. Yet as polarizing as Woods is at this point in his career, fans want to see him play — and hope to see him play well.

Example B: Women’s World Cup Final. This story, at least from an American perspective, was one of the few really satisfying ones of 2015. After failure in 2003, 2007 and 2011, the U.S. team finally won its first World Cup since the famed ’99ers victory over China in the Rose Bowl. A burst of scoring early in this year’s final against Japan not only propelled the U.S. to a 5-2 victory but probably helped create a ratings bonanza.

The Almosts

But such moments were few and far between, it seemed, in 2015.

Consider these near miss storylines from the past year, cases in which a person or team almost did something mind boggling but missed it by that much:

▪  The men’s basketball team at Kentucky tore through the season and was an astounding 38-0 when the Wildcats lost in the Final Four to Wisconsin, a Badger team that went on to lose to Duke in the title game. The last unbeaten national champ? Indiana in 1976.

▪  Going back to golf, the world’s been waiting for the next Woods-like phenom since the man himself won his last major. That came at the 2008 U.S. Open, when he played on a left knee injured so badly that it would have to be surgically rebuilt only days later. The ultimate prize: a grand slam, winning the four major tournaments in a calendar year or, at least consecutively, as Woods once did.

Enter Jordan Speith. The 22-year-old Texan won both the Masters and the U.S. Open, exciting golf fans everywhere, then fell just short of a playoff in the British Open and finished second in the PGA Championship. Sure, he took the world No. 1 spot in golf, but he was just a tiny bit off from the story of a lifetime.

▪  Ronda Rousey became arguably the biggest mainstream crossover star in mixed martial arts of either gender, quite a moment for combat sports, but was then dethroned by Holly Holm in a bout considered by some the biggest upset in UFC history.

▪  NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon finished an incredible career with an improbable run, one that put him in contention for an elusive fifth Sprint Cup championship on the final day of competition. But it was Kyle Busch who drove off with the title. Gordon was later honored by the racing series and made an emotional speech in accepting it.

▪  Serena Williams came just two matches — two matches! — short of a grand slam in women’s singles tennis, but got upended by Roberta Vinci, who then went on to lose the final to fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta.

The Silver Lining

Undeniably then, it was a year with a lot of great performances that were just this side of historic and, thus, a disappointment if your job is to root for the story.

Perhaps the best news came when Sports Illustrated awarded its sportsperson of the year title to Williams despite her near miss.

That was good news to me because there were arguments on social media and in the press that someone had, in fact, done something in sports this year that was so amazing it warranted all the end-of-year accolades the media can hand out.

That someone was American Pharoah, the thoroughbred who won the Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed in 1978. Quite an accomplishment, no doubt, particularly for jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert. But sportsman of the year? This just in — American Pharoah is a horse. He may or may not understand he’s in a race. He certainly doesn’t understand the stakes.

I used to have this same argument about horse racing in the newsroom, and so, this fall, when I got the chance to visit with three-time Breeders Cup-winning trainer David Hofmans, a courtly gent who has devoted his life to racing, I couldn’t help but ask what he thought about how much horses understand competition.

Hofmans didn’t hesitate. A very few of the smart ones like to race, he said. But the rest? If you took the jockeys off them, they’d look for the nearest spot to graze, he said.

Coming from an insider, that felt comforting to me, somehow. The humans may have failed to reach the summit of sports accomplishments in 2015, but it looks like we’re still ahead of the ponies.

John Affleck is the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State University.

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