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Barbershop: The Year In Sports


Now we head to the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news. The news this year has been dominated by what's going on politically in this country. We wanted to take a break from that and talk about some of the biggest sports stories of 2018 - except politics and more followed us over to the sports pages. So joining us in the studio here is Kevin Blackistone. He writes commentary for The Washington Post and is an ESPN analyst.

Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: How're you doing?

GONYEA: Joining from Dallas is Dave Zirin. He as a sports editor for The Nation. He is also an author, and he hosts The Nation's "Edge Of Sports" Podcast.

Hi, Dave.

DAVE ZIRIN: Great to be in the Barbershop for a shape-up.

GONYEA: (Laughter) Lastly, joining us from Los Angeles is Christine Brennan. She is a columnist for USA Today.

Hi, Christine.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Hi, Don. It's great to be with you. Thanks.

GONYEA: So all of our panelists agreed that the Larry Nassar story was the biggest of the year. Just to review quickly, he was team doctor for USA Gymnastics and for Michigan State University. Just as an aside, I'll throw out here that Michigan State is my alma mater. More than 150 women say he sexually assaulted them while they were in his care. He's been convicted and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. And there have been major shakeups at MSU and in the USA gymnastics program as a result.

So, Christine, we'll start with you. What at year's end here now is your biggest takeaway from this?

BRENNAN: Don, this is the worst scandal in U.S. Olympic history by far and the worst sports sex abuse scandal in the world ever. So it couldn't be worse. It couldn't be bigger. And I think the ramifications and the reverberations will continue all the way to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which now are just a year and a half away, and then even beyond in terms of the structure of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The fact that leaders of the USOC knew for over a year about the abuse of Larry Nassar and did nothing to protect the young athletes in their care - it was extraordinary. It has been eye-opening. I think it has certainly been a national conversation that, while it is abhorrent, we're glad to be having it in the sense that hopefully, young people can come out and speak out. Which - speaking out, whether it be the gymnasts like Rachael Denhollander, who started the whole thing, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and so many others - their ability to speak out, I think, has been extraordinary.

And especially Simone Biles - I'll just finish the thought with her. Here we have the Olympic gold medalist from 2016, just won her fourth world title, individual all-around world title. She also not only is the greatest athlete in the sport - she is also the conscience of this sport, tweeting about the mistakes of USA Gymnastics, calling her sports leaders on their ineptitude. I cannot think of a better all-around athlete of the year than Simone Biles for the things she was doing as a survivor of Larry Nassar's abuse while also continuing to be the top gymnast in the world.

GONYEA: Just astounding to watch what she has accomplished this year in the midst of all of this.

BRENNAN: Oh, without a doubt. And the heroism - I mean, we throw the word - Kevin, Dave and I talk a lot about these things - we throw the word hero around and exemplary behavior, and it sometimes gets old. No, no, no. Simone Biles - heroic in every way.

GONYEA: Kevin, we learned through court documents and an IndyStar investigation that Nassar's history of assault was in part enabled by authorities dismissing years of complaints. What does this tell us about the institutional procedures to protect amateur athletes?

BLACKISTONE: Just how systemic this abuse was and how insidious it was. In fact, we've just learned in the past week or so in the Indianapolis Star, which has been covering this story and unearthing the worst of it, that, in fact, the police department in the city of Indianapolis was involved in helping to cover this up for many years. So this was something that had tentacles that stretched far and deep for so long that it just makes you wonder about how we get sucked into sports, particularly when it comes to the Olympics. We can't forget that gymnastics is one of the most watched sports if not the most watched sports in the summer games next to track and field and how we've championed these women who at the time were really girls.

GONYEA: Dave, as all this was unfolding this year, you demanded more action by way of congressional investigation. What could happen? What do you think needs to happen in that area to ensure that future athletes'll be protected?

ZIRIN: Well, I think we need to have a lot more openness and transparency in what essentially are cartels. And that's when - whether you're talking about USA gymnastics, the USOC and, frankly, whether you're talking about the NCAA or FIFA, these are, in a lot of ways, closed societies, and it's very difficult to get at the truth and uncover the truth. And you see the effort of what it took in this particular case with Rachel Denhollander and the other brave gymnast that we've discussed just to break open the cartel and to let the truth out into the light.

So the idea when calling for congressional oversight, when calling for hearings - it's all about transparency. It's all about letting in the light. And it's all about getting the truth out there so we can actually do what Simone Biles is really calling for, which is to tear this down so we can rebuild it so it's something that actually nurtures and protects athletes as opposed to exploiting them.

GONYEA: OK, so there's another big story in the sports world. It's one that's been around a while. It's been more than two years since quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers game. The impact of that's still being felt. He made big waves this year by becoming the face of Nike's latest just do it campaign. But, Kevin, you wrote that that Nike deal muddles Kaepernick's message. Why's that?

BLACKISTONE: Well, it really does because there was nothing in that advertisement that played on television that harkened back to the reason that Colin Kaepernick had been imprinted in our psyche. He was not on a knee. His fist was not in the air. He said nothing about police lethality against black men, unarmed black men, in this country, which is what he stood down for and what so many people began following him for.

And so I just think there's a danger when you commercialize what has become your brand to the extent that Colin Kaepernick has. And I think, as a result of it, we got away from that conversation that he kind of - he didn't start, but he certainly set ablaze back in 2016.

GONYEA: Christine, this is spilling over into the Super Bowl, which will be held early next year. There are lots of artists who are saying they won't perform in the Super Bowl halftime show, which is in Atlanta. Atlanta is a hotbed of music, especially hip-hop. Do you see the public divide - and it's a growing public divide, I think - over this issue going away anytime soon?

BRENNAN: No, I don't. And I respect Kevin Blackistone more than anyone could know and - on the issue, so I understand exactly, Kevin, the concerns you have. But I also do think there's another way to look at what's happened over the last year, and that is, I think, if we look at corporate America giving its - the thumbs up, so to speak, to a cause - in this case, of course, deciding that they wanted to work with Colin Kaepernick in an emotional and powerful message that Kevin points out was not all it could have been.

Is it - is that not victory? It turned out to be a great business decision for Nike, which tells us all we need to know about the demographics for the next 50 years in terms of buying shoes, these young kids, and how they look at the question of political activism much differently maybe than their parents do and in a positive manner.

GONYEA: OK. Our game clock is ticking here. I'd like a one-line answer from each of you - the big stories to watch in 2019. Dave, you first.

ZIRIN: Watch for Colin Kaepernick to re-emerge as a public figure in a very significant way, not just as a symbol, but as an activist.

GONYEA: All right. Christine?

BRENNAN: Athletes speaking out continues to be the big story. The WNBA is going - is in a - quite a labor dispute about equal pay or at least getting better pay for our top female basketball players in the world. And, again, the gymnastics story as we march to Tokyo. We will again continue to see this story play out, I'm sure, as the athletes once again find their voice and continue to speak out.

GONYEA: Kevin - final word?

BLACKISTONE: I think athletes exercising their collective might as labor. We just mentioned the WNBA. There's also the big court case going on with college athletes.

GONYEA: That's Kevin Blackistone, columnist for The Washington Post. We've also got Christine Brennan of USA Today and Dave Zirin of The Nation.

Thank you all.


BRENNAN: Thank you very much.

ZIRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.