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Originally published Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 3:29 PM

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Column: An ugly year in sports _ or was it?

Good riddance, 2012.

AP National Writer

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Good riddance, 2012.

The year that almost was left us with a string of hideous story lines.

From the ongoing repulsiveness of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State to Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour de France titles for injecting himself with everything but the kitchen sink.

There was the New Orleans Saints' cash-for-hits bounty scandal, and Commissioner Roger Goodell being slapped down by his predecessor for the way he handled the whole thing. And the sad, sad plights that emerge almost every day from ex-football players who took far too many blows to the head while playing America's most popular sport.

Those were the top four in The Associated Press' annual survey of the year's sport stories.

Thanks a lot, 2012.

Your legacy is pain and misery - if we allow it to be.

This year could be a turning point on so many vital fronts.

Maybe when we reflect back years from now, we'll remember 2012 as a time when we decided sexual abuse was no longer an embarrassing problem to be swept under the rug, that doping was a scourge we needed to address no matter who it took down, that football players must be taken care of physically and emotionally if our national sport is to survive.

If we could pick one figure who we hope will epitomize this year more than any other, it would be Cy Young Award-winning pitcher R.A. Dickey. A journeyman who became a star in his late 30s after taking up the knuckleball. A victim of childhood sexual abuse who summoned the courage to talk about his plight in a candid autobiography. Someone who triumphed in the end after all the pain.

"One of the hopes I have for the book is that people will be able to draw something from it that might be able to help them," Dickey said during spring training after it was published, "whether it's to talk about it more, to not be afraid, to be open with what's happened, that there are people available that will love you no matter what."

That would be a worthy legacy for 2012.

Of course, it's terrible what happened at Penn State, which was voted the top sports story for the second year in a row. But who knows how many kids will be saved in the years to come because the next time a child is raped in the shower by a dirty old man, the police will surely be called. Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly spoke hopefully of the guilty verdict against Jerry Sandusky persuading "other victims of abuse to come forward."

And that's a good thing.

Of course, it's shocking to learn of the lengths Armstrong was willing to go to away from his bike, all to make sure he climbed to the top step of the podium on the Champs-Elysees year after year. But who knows how many future cyclists will decide it's not worth the risk of getting caught or having to deal with the inner turmoil of knowing they are a cheat. "Our mission is to protect clean athletes by preserving the integrity of competition not only for today's athletes but also the athletes of tomorrow," U.S. anti-doping chief Travis Tygart wrote in the voluminous case file against Armstrong.

And that's a good thing.

Of course, the Saints scandal exposed the dirty little secret in the NFL that apparently wasn't much of a secret to those who play the game, the idea that money changes hands when someone doles out a hit that leave the other guys crumpled on the turf. While former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the punishments against four players, he doled out enough blame that one can only hope this is the last time we hear of anyone using the word "bounty" or intentionally trying to hurt someone.

And that's a good thing.

Of course, it's heartbreaking to see former greats of the gridiron, like the late Alex Karras, withering away in their golden years, unable to recognize friends and loved ones because the game they played turned their brains into mush. But everyone from the NFL to Pop Warner leagues finally seem to be addressing this wrenching issue, providing a glimmer of hope that future generations will be better protected. "He is interested in making the game of football safer," Karras' actress-wife, Susan Clark, told the AP a few months before he died, "and hoping that other families of retired players will have a healthier and happier retirement."

And that's a good thing.

Oh, sure, there were some triumphant tales from these last 12 months.

The London Olympics were a sight to behold. Michael Phelps went out in splash of glory, Usain Bolt blazed down the track, Gabby Douglas and Missy Franklin stole our hearts.

LeBron James finally claimed a ring after a season that even his critics had to concede was one of the most dazzling in NBA history. The San Francisco Giants kept us up late at night, winning baseball playoff games in the most unfathomable of ways. Quarterback Peyton Manning made an inspiring comeback from career-threatening injuries, leading Denver to a division title.

All were events worth celebrating.

But they're unlikely to have the far-reaching impact of those that made us cringe.

Now, if we can do better, maybe 2012 won't be such a bad year after all.

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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