For the second consecutive month, the most compelling reading did not come from the New York Times' best seller list, but a law enforcement report.
In November, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky brought down a giant football program and changed the conversation not only in big-time college sports but also regarding sports and child sexual abuse. On Dec. 14, the courts provided another inconceivability: a six-page report of a sting targeting Sam Hurd, a Chicago Bears reserve wideout whom federal agents and their confidential informants say was attempting to purchase as much as $575,000 of cocaine and marijuana a week with the intention to distribute.
As the year 2011 comes to a close, the distance between the athlete and the public remains immense, but because of the nature of the Hurd and Sandusky offenses seems more immediate than ever. Both men say they are innocent, and until convicted they maintain that presumption. By overwhelming degree, most athletes avoid such trouble, but the public once again has also been exposed to the darker side of celebrity power, privilege and entitlement.
The Sandusky report left people feeling hollow and empty, then indignant and filled with rage. The dereliction of duty that has not and perhaps cannot be explained. Questions about how Sandusky was allowed continued access to Penn State and to boys as well as about his brazenness to continue his alleged pattern of abusing children even after apologizing to the mother of one of the alleged victims were as vexing as how he could allegedly commit the crimes with which he has been charged in the first place.
As much as Sandusky, albeit for different reasons, the Hurd document and the serious allegations it detailed were bewildering. It seems incomprehensible that a professional athlete, signed to a $1 million contract after already having made million-dollar salaries with the Dallas Cowboys, could be involved in a massive interstate drug enterprise, never mind being targeted by the federal government as its kingpin. Of course, five years ago, the same conversations were being held about a then-$130 million quarterback named Michael Vick and dogfighting.
In Sandusky's case, it would seem only a matter of time before people came forward and now they have. If the grand jury report is to be believed, Sandusky did not appear to be deterred, not after apologizing to a parent. Not after being seen by graduate assistant Mike McQueary or a wrestling coach or a janitor.
The federal complaint against Hurd reflects a similar brazenness, painting a picture of a person quite cavalier about communicating about the drug trade, allegedly incorporating family members into a major drug-trafficking operation, clearly expecting that the prominence of being a professional athlete would provide him the necessary insulation and cover.
According to the report, Hurd's alleged accomplice, named T.L., was stopped in a car registered to Hurd on July 27 with a bag covered in a "green, leafy plant-like material field that field tested positive for the properties of marijuana" and $88,000 cash, which the accomplice said belonged to Hurd. The next day, Hurd met with federal agents and acknowledged the money belonged to him while trying to reclaim it.
Two weeks later, according to the report, T.L. contacted a federal informant attempting to purchase five kilos of cocaine on behalf of Hurd. The contact with informants and undercover agents continued until December, when Hurd was finally arrested outside a Chicago steakhouse after attempting to purchase five to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of marijuana per week at $25,000 per kilogram of cocaine and $450 per pound of marijuana from a federal agent. According to the report, Hurd told the undercover agent that "he and another co-conspirator currently distribute approximately four kilograms of cocaine per week in the Chicago area."
So much of the sports news this year has been unbelievable -- except that it is totally believable in light of past crimes, from Vick to Bam Morris (multiple drug convictions), Nate Newton (drugs) and Rae Carruth (murder). The sting investigation, like all police reports, represents one side, and thus should not be taken at this date as fact. For example, the report did not mention what occurred to the marijuana on the July 27 traffic stop or whether Hurd was questioned about it or simply the $88,000 that was in his car.
But the document, like Sandusky's, is certainly damning. Each time an athlete or coach is arrested, we ask how this could have happened, and we ask why these high-profile sports people don't believe the rules apply to them. We ask these questions already knowing the answer: The rules have never applied to them. They move in a world of entitlement, a world of glorification in large part created by the fanatic public, since being able to run really fast and catch a football carries no inherent value to the universe except that people are willing to pay $75 plus parking to witness it.
Maybe it is the money, the early recognition that talent has always been a get-out-of-jail free card. Maybe Jerry Sandusky and Sam Hurd are simply troubled souls who happened to be involved in sports. Or maybe they will both be found innocent in a court of law.
What is clear is that the frequency of high-profile, spectacular falls of people who supposedly have achieved the American dream suggests a distancing from reality that in part must be attributed to the entitlements and protections of the life. The result is no longer asking the question "when does it stop?" but "who's next?"
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.