SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And now it's time for sports.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: The highlight of my week at the office - right alongside telling you that BJ Leiderman writes our theme music - here to talk about sports highlights of 2015, our man Howard Bryant of espn.com and ESPN The Magazine. Howard, thanks for being with us.
HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: What stories stand out for you?
BRYANT: Well, I think above anything else the story of the year really was the protests with the University of Missouri and the athletes showing their power. For the second straight year you've seen players really distancing himself from the old 1980s and 1990s model of the player hiding behind their riches in their gated communities. I think Missouri really proved that athletes can change the society, as we saw with the president resigning and the chancellor resigning as well. I think that - and the response is, well, even though the bill was finally killed that you saw how power was going to react when a Missouri representative - a state representative wanted to enact a bill that would strip scholarships from players who wanted to strike or refuse to play. So I think that the power knows that athletes, if they use it in a billion-dollar industry, can really affect the landscape across political and across social lines.
SIMON: Of course, at the same time, we heard a lot about the crimes of athletes, and I'm thinking of domestic violence charges especially. But does it seem to you more athletes are becoming conscious of their role as prominent citizens?
BRYANT: Oh, I think so, and I think you always follow the leader. I think in the 1980s and 1990s, of course, remember the famed Republicans buy shoes, too, line from Michael Jordan, even though no one knows if he actually ever said it or not. I think when you look at LeBron James as a player now as a guy who's really different from those old days, he's a guy who really does look at his role. We saw it with Trayvon Martin. We saw it with Donald Sterling in 2014, and now you look at some of the younger players in college. Remember the - Northwestern last year started to unionize or looked into unionizing. And now Missouri, the football players in October and November took on the university. So absolutely you see a change and this is a post - these kids are - their African-American post-Ferguson generation is very, very different from 30 years ago.
SIMON: I want to add a few things as a fan, OK, for 2015 highlights. The unrivaled excellence of Serena Williams, the athleticism of American Pharaoh, which, by the way, I don't weigh on the same scale
BRYANT: (Laughter) Good, good.
SIMON: And the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series with grit, guile, speed, fielding. That was exciting.
BRYANT: And determination after, I think, one of my favorite stories in sports is when a team comes really close. We don't see it very often when a team comes really close and they go out and then they lose. And usually that's it, especially a team at their level. They're not the New York Yankees. They don't have a gazillion dollars spent on payroll. But they came close in 2014, and they lost the World Series at home to the San Francisco Giants. And the very next year, starting the first day of spring training, it was we are going out to win the World Series. We're going to go get what we didn't get last year. And they did. They went out and they saw, they conquered and they came through in a way that was really thrilling. And to have not won since 1985 was also great. And also the Golden State Warriors, as well, also a lot of fun.
SIMON: Yes. And what are you looking forward to in 2016? What do you keep your eye on?
BRYANT: Well, I want to see more - I want to - I really want to see how players react to what is coming. You know there's going to be a response socially, whenever the next controversy's going to be. I'm very interested in hopefully seeing a Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs Eastern Conference final. I want to see those two teams go at it, and there's always something great.
SIMON: Wait - Cleveland rocks.
BRYANT: (Laughter) And of course, let's not forget King James
SIMON: Yeah. And those three teams are having - you wonder if they can - they're all having splendid years and you wonder how long that lasts. I'm looking forward to it.
BRYANT: Right, Christmas Day, Cavs and Warriors.
SIMON: Oh, my gosh, really?
SIMON: Oh, I think I know what I'm doing. Howard Bryant of espn.com and ESPN The Magazine. With my family - we'll watch together. You, too. Nice to talk to you, my friend. Talk to you in the new year.
BRYANT: Merry Christmas.
SIMON: Merry Christmas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.