(Reuters) - The stadiums and arenas where fans go to escape were invaded like never before in 2014 as the reality of racism, domestic violence and equality turned the Fields of Dreams into gloomy landscapes.
LeBron James’s homecoming, a Super Bowl blowout, a throwback World Series pitching performance and a Stanley Cup comeback for the ages all provided enough drama, suspense and awe to keep the turnstiles twirling and television ratings soaring.
But the cheers were occasionally drowned out by outrage over domestic abuse and chants of “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” as fans and athletes joined protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Internationally there was plenty of glory as the United States won 28 medals at the Sochi Games and claimed the world basketball crown while Canada enjoyed a sweep of the Olympic ice hockey gold medals.
But there was less to be proud of on the homefront as the ever-present undercurrent of racism surfaced, forcing National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
With players on the brink of revolt and sponsors ready to flee, Sterling was run out of the league, both cashing in and paying the price for his racist rant, loathed and humiliated but $2 billion richer after a forced sale of his team to Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer.
James, the face of NBA, grabbed headlines when he turned his back on the glitz of Miami for the grit of Cleveland, the city he famously jilted four years early in free agency.
After winning two NBA titles with the Heat but humbled in last season’s final by the San Antonio Spurs, James returned to the Cavaliers determined to deliver the championship he failed to in his first stint with the team.
The NFL took as many hits off the field as on it but the controversies could not dent the league’s immense popularity.
Commissioner Roger Goodell was widely criticized for fumbling domestic violence cases, most notably one involving a video showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiance in an elevator.
Concussions remained a major concern in the NFL while the league prepared to welcome its first openly gay player. Michael Sam’s groundbreaking bid, however, fizzled when he was dropped by the St. Louis Rams and then the Dallas Cowboys leaving his playing future in limbo.
On the field the Seattle Seahawks were the toast of NFL after thumping the Denver Broncos 43-8 in the first cold weather Super Bowl played outdoors in New Jersey.
With a labor dispute behind them the NHL entered the year in spectacular style by attracting a record crowd of 105,000 to Michigan Stadium for a game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings.
The Los Angeles Kings grabbed the NHL spotlight by winning their second Stanley Cup in three seasons after a remarkable playoff run that included a rally from a 3-0 series deficit in the opening round of the playoffs.
After 20 seasons, New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter exited the MLB stage in grand style by slamming the winning hit in a 6-5 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in his final game at Yankee Stadium.
A few weeks later fans found a new star, as San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner earned his spot in the pantheon of baseball greats by earning two wins in the World Series and a five-inning save in the decisive seventh game to give his team their third championship in five years.
Editing by Frank Pingue