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Goodell leads picks for 2015's most fascinating; best journalism of 2014

Last year I paneled a group of sports media people to answer the following question:

Who will be the most fascinating sports person in 2014?

The answers that came back were interesting, some even prescient, and I’ve decided to make it an end-of-the-year tradition as long as I have a place to write.

Sports Illustrated's 25 most popular stories of 2014

Once again, the panelists (I added some new ones this year) were given no requirements outside of a due date, and they could answer with multiple people if they so chose.

Here's how the panelists answered, and thanks for reading this column in 2014:

Brian Anderson, CBS and Turner Sports broadcaster:

I'll go with Joe Maddon. He's always on my most fascinating list just for being Joe Maddon, but drop him in the Wrigleyville stew and my interest is piqued. For being such a maverick and innovator, he's got a lot of vintage in him. He's as perfect for Wrigley as it gets. That said, with the Cubs’ talent, if they don't win it will be quite the collision between the most positive-upbeat-defend-the-player-always manager in the big leagues versus the doomsday Cubs fans who hope to win, who want to love their players but fully expect to be disappointed. Even a classic Maddon pep talk or T-shirt or garden gnome or spirit catcher or whatever else he can think of will deny them of that birthright. Now, if they make it to the postseason or even (cough) win the World Series, wow, confess your sins and get your affairs in order. Wrigley might collapse.

Josina Anderson, ESPN NFL reporter:

Cleared of conduct code violation, what comes next for Jameis Winston

​Jameis Winston's on-field successes, coupled with a litany of off-field issues, have already left an impression. He will endure more scrutiny if he decides to enter the NFL draft after this season. Thus the continuing examination that surrounds Winston makes him fascinating to me, and that’s before even getting into how he could do on the field as an NFL quarterback.

Pause for a moment and ponder his path: Winston is a small-town kid out of Hueytown, Alabama. He’s a multi-sport prospect who navigated the media glare during his freshman year at Florida State while maintaining success on the football field and getting into the Heisman club. Then he was accused of sexual assault, but faced no charges after the prosecutor said there wasn’t enough evidence in a case that put Winston, his university and the Tallahassee PD under a microscope. Since then, Winston has been in the spotlight for a few other reported incidents that might affect how NFL teams feel about him: shoplifting crab legs, shouting obscenities from a cafeteria table and playing with BB guns. But at the end of the day, Winston has a chance to lead the Seminoles to consecutive undefeated seasons with another title.

Winston will probably be the No. 1 quarterback taken in the draft if he declares. Throughout that process he will face another barrage of questions about his maturity from teams that might want a new face of their franchise, or are just plain desperate for a passer with unquestionable potential. And, he might hear many of the same stereotypical questions and criticisms that athletic, black quarterbacks before him had to endure. How will Winston handle that? Can he succeed on the field and off? Will he grow up?

As an NFL reporter, I think Jameis Winston will be the most fascinating person in sports in 2015.

Jay Bilas, ESPN college basketball analyst:

Roger Goodell. Given all that has happened in the past year, how the NFL proceeds regarding social issues and player safety will be fascinating, and Goodell is the driving force/lightning rod in this turbulent and interesting time for the NFL, and for sport in this country. The NFL and NBA best represent where sports can affect social change or, at least, elevate the discussion and debate that can lead to real change. Goodell is in a position of great authority, power and prominence, and his decisions and ability to lead in 2015 will be tested, and fascinating to watch. 

Bonnie Bernstein, VP, Content and Brand Development/On-Air Host, Campus Insiders

As the new No. 2 behind president Mark Emmert, Oliver Luck, the newly minted EVP of Regulatory Affairs for the NCAA and the former AD at West Virginia, should be the game-changer the NCAA has long needed. There has been a glaring disconnect between the athletics community and the folks in Indianapolis and Luck garners enough respect from both sides to bridge the gap. He’s considered level-headed and forward thinking -- he was the primary force behind the Mountaineers' move from the Big East to the Big 12. He also has a diverse leadership resume that ranges from his time as a college and pro quarterback to his president’s post at NFL Europe, and he will certainly shake things up at NCAA headquarters with his support of compensation for the usage of athletes’ name and likeness.

Mike Breen, ESPN NBA announcer:

I'm going to say Adam Silver. He took over for a legendary commissioner and has already put his own stamp and identity on the NBA in a few short months. He's so smart but is a great listener. He's so personable and friendly but can be tough when he has to be. He believes strongly in the tradition of the league and the game but is very open to new and creative ideas. He is very confident yet exhibits such humility. He had a spectacular start in 2014.

Ato Boldon, NBC Sports track and field analyst:

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica doesn’t always show up on everyone’s sports-superstar radar, but she could change that in 2015. 

Fraser-Pryce already has the same number of Olympic 100-meter dash titles as Usain Bolt (with two wins in a row, as he has done) and if she defends her 2013 100-meter dash title in Beijing at the World Championships in 2015, she’ll have won three out of the last four world 100-meter dash crowns. That would catapult her to the top of the list of athletes to watch at the Rio Olympics in ‘16. There, she’d be trying to do what no man or woman has ever done in Olympic history: win three Olympic 100-meter titles in a row. 

Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce

She has a great back story, overcoming challenging circumstances early in her life, and she is now a pillar of the community in Jamaica. Jamaica and the Caribbean do not have a better female athlete role model than Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

John Buccigross, ESPN SportsCenter anchor:

To me, there is a strangeness, an SCTV/Saturday Night Live coaching caricature-uncomfortableness to Jim Harbaugh. This persona will be exasperated and fueled by the desperation and expectation from an amalgamation of big money boosters, an amped-up student body, and an abandoned-on-the-outside-looking-in fan base with their nose pressed against the chain link fence of college football: "Can we play, too?" 

Reports: Jim Harbaugh has accepted offer to coach Michigan

He’s an SCTV caricature because there is an originality to Harbaugh's act and an apparent and assumed complete lack of self-awareness. He's Ed Grimley in khakis. Ann Arbor will only make him more free to develop this character to its full bloom, to curl his hair even more and to play to the bowing crowd. For Jim Harbaugh is the CEO of Michigan Football Inc., ruler of everything, and he will have full artistic control to shape the program in his quirky, maniacally competitive, "What's your deal, dude?" image. The Midwest is better suited for Harbaugh's puffed-out chest and the Big Ten could sure use a man to improve its posture, forming, along with the sideline men in Columbus and East Lansing, the Rust Belt Maniacal Triangle. 

I'm very much looking forward to the first Jim Harbaugh/Urban Meyer televised split screen. Both men like to watch their gridiron constructions bent over, hands on his knees, and with an uncomfortable wide stance. No coaches live as vicariously through their players as Meyer and Harbaugh, two men from the bike shorts/spot bilt shoe-wearing coaches era. They want to be out there on the field moving their chess pieces and they will spare no emotional price to win. Characters like these are why I now find college football more interesting than the NFL. Most sports fans understand the NFL is the most popular sport, but I'm not sure they're readily aware that the second most popular sport in America is not the NBA or Major League Baseball. It's college football, where the rich get richer and the poor get concussed, where America's growing income gap lives within the supposed high-minded, high ideal college campuses. 

Jim Harbaugh and college football. Their shoes are laced with irony. 

Joe Buck, Fox Sports broadcaster:

Jeffery Loria. The second or third time is the charm for rebuilding the Marlins. After the deal given to Giancarlo Stanton, and what he has around him, this is the year for Miami. A quirky art dealer who really does love the game and his players will emerge with the last laugh after the failed try in 2012. 

Cari Champion, ESPN First Take host and E:60 reporter

I didn't want to discuss the usual suspects or the obvious answers because there are so many storylines that need answers from 2014 that bleed into 2015, but for me the most fascinating person must be Roger Goodell. His future as head of the most powerful sports league is still unknown. I know there were calls for his resignation and public outrage from the league's fan base. But now that the Ray Rice case has been "settled," when does the case of the commissioner begin? Or is it underway with the Mueller investigation? Or will the noise and interest surrounding Goodell subside? Will the league, its fan base and the media lose interest until the next incident? All questions that need answers in the coming year. Clearly Goodell has the support he needs as of now, but I find it hard to believe he will not find himself the focal point of another storm the league has been aware of but has ignored. Whether it be domestic violence or drugs, another hit to an already damaged public image -- could you imagine? What will happen to the disciplinarian, if anything at all?

Heather Cox, ESPN reporter:

Oliver Luck will be the most fascinating person in sports because of the impact he will have on the future of collegiate athletics. He leaves West Virginia and the college football playoff committee to become the No. 2 person at the NCAA. The NCAA is in a state of transition and I think Luck is the lightning bolt necessary for reform. Luck brings a well-rounded and veteran perspective as a former athlete, college administrator and businessman. He has been on the record as saying he thinks collegiate athletes have a "constitutional" right to their likeness, leading me to believe that Luck will lean more toward the "Jay Bilas model" than anyone ever has at the NCAA. And a bonus for Luck: He relocates to Indianapolis, the same city where his son Andrew is the quarterback for the Colts. West Virginia's and the college football playoff selection committee's loss is the NCAA's gain. Look for major positive impact in a short amount of time.

Ian Eagle, CBS Sports and YES Network broadcaster:

Aaron Rodgers. Already highly accomplished, he's taken it to another level. Eye-popping numbers, Hollywood girlfriend and a sly sense of humor -- he's already resuscitated the Hans and Franz "franchise." If he wins another Super Bowl, there's a chance that Tim Meadows' "Ladies Man" character gets a national commercial in 2015.  

Jeannine Edwards, ESPN reporter:

Jameis Winston. Whether or not the Seminoles win the national championship, Winston will be under scrutiny in 2015. First, there's the college football playoff to contend with, and Florida State has become the Heart-Attack-Seminoles this year. When Winston's "on," there's no better quarterback in college football. But there are times when he and the team have been slightly "off," which has led to some very interesting ball games. What's highly commendable is how they've always found a way to win. I'm one of many people who feel FSU's handling of the alleged sexual assault and Title IX situation has been somewhat disappointing. But, of course, Winston's draft position will be news. His first practices and games with his NFL team will be news.  And because of who he is and his personality, he may rightly or wrongly end up in the news for other reasons as well. He's under the microscope from here on out.

Rich Eisen, NFL Network host:

As of this writing, the free football world, especially that of Ann Arbor, is on pins and needles waiting to find out where Jim Harbaugh is taking his talents in 2015. The mere fact that The Decision Minus Jim Gray is unfolding is partial proof of why Harbaugh is so fascinating: there is no predicting what he might do. Or how he might act. Or how long his act might last wherever he winds up.

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​Imagine if he lands across the Bay from San Francisco to return the Oakland Raiders to glory? Win or lose, that's fascinating. Same in Chicago. If he arrives to fix the Bears, what happens to Jay Cutler? The state of the franchise? What happens to the annual rivalry with the Packers with Harbaugh in that mix? Fascinating.

But dropping Jim Harbaugh at his alma mater to try and restore the football program to its glory days when it is at its most desperate is beyond fascinating because it has repercussions throughout the Big 10 and, thus, the NCAA. Jim-Urban is the 21st Century edition of Bo and Woody's 10-Year War. Having someone of Harbaugh's status take this job also raises the profile of the entire conference, which, to be frank, needs it, with the SEC having a virtual vapor lock on the national championship trophy. That is only when the ACC crashes the party or the Pac-12 sends someone in their direction.

Jim Harbaugh, my most fascinating sports figure of 2015.

Paul Finebaum, ESPN Radio and SEC Network commentator:

Jay Bilas. In many ways, Bilas contended in 2014, but I think his reach will expand next year with an even higher profile on ESPN coupled with a base of power and influence rarely, if ever, seen before in modern media. There was an old saying back in the nineties that Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, could sneeze and move the Dow several hundred points one way or another. I think the same -- at least in the parlance of intercollegiate sports -- can be said in relation to Bilas. He is that rarest of broadcaster that has no fear or favor on the topics of the day, and when he locks on an issue, Bilas is as ferocious as a famished Komodo dragon.

Fran Fraschilla, ESPN college basketball analyst:

Bob Bowlsby. The former athletic director at Stanford and Iowa and former chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee found his conference left out in the cold after the selection of the four teams for the first college football playoff. What will be his next move? Does the Big 12 expand to 12 schools in order to create a championship game that will ensure a bigger body of work for the champion? Would a championship game be the best way to crown a champion in the only power conference where every member plays each other each season? How he navigates these issues on expansion could have a major impact not only on the success of the Big 12 but also on the landscape of college athletics. He may be running the NCAA before long.

Dan Fouts, CBS Sports NFL analyst:

Marcus Mariota's Heisman Trophy win adds to Oregon's stunning success

I wish this "old Duck" had thought of Ducks quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota last year. But I have given it a lot of thought this year and I am not going to make the same mistake twice: I believe that Marcus Mariota will be the most fascinating athlete of 2015 because whoever drafts him will make the playoffs and go on to win Super Bowl 50! Do I sound like too much of a "homer"? If so ... so be it and Go Ducks!

Jon Gruden, ESPN Monday Night Football analyst:

Russell Wilson is someone who continues to fascinate me with the success he’s had as such a young man. He hasn’t gotten the contract or the money that some of the others have. We’ve seen $100 million quarterbacks that haven’t even won a playoff game, but for him to have that single focus that he has every week -- he’s a nightmare dual-threat quarterback and a tremendous leader. He already has a Super Bowl championship and he has the Seahawks in position again to potentially win another. He’s one of the emerging stars in the NFL.

Andrea Kremer, HBO Sports and NFL Network reporter:

The most fascinating person in 2015 will be Adrian Peterson. It appears that he won't be eligible to possibly return to the league until April (the opening of teams' offseason conditioning programs). What kind of physical shape will he be in? He played only one game in 2014. Has he actually benefited personally from the time away from the game? Did he learn anything about alternative methods for discipline and child rearing? Would he repeat the same behavior?  And, of course, what team "takes a chance" on him?

Peterson isn't Ray Rice, whose skills had diminished to the point that his position as a starter was in jeopardy anyway. He is still just two seasons removed from nearly breaking Eric Dickerson's single season rushing mark and though he turns 30 in March, a year off didn't further diminish the tread on his tires. But exactly how toxic is Peterson, especially with what he'll cost a team in monetary and image terms? I personally believe he is entitled to a second chance if he indeed maximized his time away from the game, but do the Vikings or 31 other teams?  Fair or not, due to their actions, Peterson and Rice are the faces of child abuse and domestic violence in sports. They have contributed to a sea change in the league's conduct policy with the collateral damage of further animosity between the NFL and its Players Association.  


U.S.' Abby Wambach

Alexi Lalas, Fox Sports soccer analyst:

I'll go with Abby Wambach from the U.S. women's national team. The combination of what is probably her final attempt at a WWC title and her position of leadership in the turf lawsuit vs. FIFA/CAN will give us on/off field stories that could resonate. The WWC could be an event that will attract many non-soccer folks, and the discriminatory aspect within the lawsuit could foster a lot of debate from the general public. If Abby maintains her position in the forefront of these stories, I could see her driving interest that could transcend the sport and event.

Kara Lawson, ESPN basketball analyst:

UFC is at a crossroads. They’re putting on events nearly every week and they don’t have the star power to fill those shows. GSP (Georges St-Pierre) is gone. Anderson Silva is returning in 2015 but is not the mythical figure he once was. Not one major fight this year has gone off as scheduled. The highly anticipated UFC 178 showdown pitting Daniel Cormier and Jon “Bones" Jones produced pre-fight press conference fireworks but was ultimately postponed because of injuries. Injuries have ruined one pay-per-view after another. Ronda Rousey, MMA’s biggest star, can’t fight every month and is already running low on compelling opponents. 

CM Punk: Contrary to popular belief I have been punched in the face

​Enter CM Punk, a star who has no professional or amateur mixed martial arts fights to his credit or tough guy background like Kimbo Slice. But here’s what Punk does have: Since 2011, he has arguably been the most popular professional wrestler in North America. His following grew this past January, when he walked away from Vince McMahon and the WWE, citing injuries, burnout and general unhappiness. After 11 months of silence, Punk spoke on The Art of Wrestling podcast, a two-hour interview that explained his absence (he received his termination papers on his wedding day -- stay classy, Triple H) and appeared to close the door on his professional wrestling career. Just over a week later, Punk, whose real name is Phil Brooks, was cageside with Joe Rogan being introduced as the newest UFC fighter. 

Will MMA fans, the ones who despise professional wrestling, tune in to see Punk get his butt kicked? Will his legions of fans follow him over from the WWE, a product that has become increasingly stale since his departure? History says yes on both fronts. Brock Lesnar, the first WWE mega star to enter the Octagon, is responsible for three of the four biggest buy rates in UFC history. And while CM Punk isn’t the freak athlete Lesner is, he has the same ability to sell a fight with his words. The buildup to Lesnar fights produced some memorable moments. I can’t wait to see what Punk has in store. In 2015, It’s Clobberin Time!

Bob Ley, ESPN Outside The Lines anchor:

Roger Goodell’s 2014, to borrow from Queen Elizabeth II, was an ‘"annus horribilis." He survived an editorial tidal wave of calls for his job, his management oversight and credibility have been found sorely lacking, and when the Mueller Report is finally issued it’s likely to add to the parade of critical and self-critical assessments of the past four months. Goodell is the nominal head of a cultural and business behemoth with every possible advantage of consumer loyalty and market demand. But his personal brand is damaged. Can RG1 recover his mojo? It’s one thing to survive the crisis of the moment and remain in his position. It will be another to erase the past four months in the collective memory, and lead effectively.

Rebecca Lowe, NBC Sports Premier League and Olympics host:

In the sport I cover of football (soccer), 2015 is going to be significant and possibly pivotal for a clutch of figures, but the one that grabs me the most is Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers. Here’s a chap who is still only 41 and yet in charge of one of the greatest football institutions in the world.  He’s a man who surely back in his 20s as a non-league footballer doubling as a youth coach could never have dreamed that he’d be the Liverpool boss as he entered his fifth decade. He took the job when he was 38 and in his first season led Liverpool to seventh place, which was neither a success nor a failure. But last season, his side featuring Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge scoring goals like they were going out of fashion almost won Liverpool its first-ever Premier League title. They finished runners-up and the bar was set. Suarez went to Barcelona, Sturridge to the treatment room on a virtual permanent basis and Liverpool have since been struggling.

This club so rich in the tradition of success born in the 70s and 80s is desperate to get back to European football’s elite.  The question is, which is the real Brendan Rodgers? The one from Seasons One and Three, or the man who was being linked with the Barcelona job in Season Two? We don’t know the answer. Not for many years has someone divided opinion quite like this man from Carnlough, Northern Ireland. Is he a genius or did he just get lucky? All will unfold in 2015 at the club that rivals any other for the world’s biggest. You get the feeling it’s a make or break year for Brendan Rodgers.

Curt Menefee, Fox Sports host:

Executive of the Year: Silver defined clear path for NBA in critical moments

Adam Silver. In less than a year on the job as NBA commissioner, Silver has already become the most interesting leader in sports. He has an amazing ability to be quick and decisive (see Donald Sterling and Jeffery Taylor), yet also be a consensus builder. At the same time, he’s doing what he thinks needs to be done for the good of the sport without alienating sponsors or the general public. If the NBA isn't the No. 2 sports league in America already, he has it on a fast track to get there. The new TV contract allows the league a lot of leeway in building toward even more. He may be on the verge of an interesting fight with the players union from what we hear, which, if he succeeds, will only add to his already-budding legacy in 2015.

Kevin Negandhi, ESPN SportsCenter anchor:

I had a couple of people on my list, such as new NBA Players Union Executive Director Michele Roberts, who's unifying a group of millionaires against a group of billionaires who just got their network TV deals in order. Or Chip Kelly and his Belichickian mystique, as coaches from every level in the sport mimic his offensive style. Or Ray Rice's longshot attempt to come back and find an owner willing to give him a job. But I'm watching this Warriors-Grizzlies game and I can't get my eyes off Steph Curry.

There's a certain refreshing aura about Curry's demeanor. He enjoys playing basketball, and it feels free. No weight hanging on his back or cloud hovering over him. He's entering his prime and it's coinciding with the timing of a special season in the Bay Area. But unlike other NBA stars, the unforgiving microscope is not focusing on him -- yet. The pressure has yet to be turned up a notch to championship/MVP expectations on a nightly basis. They will be this spring if Golden State keeps winning. I'm intrigued to see how Curry handles that kind of MVP dissection on and off the court, when big shots matter for superstars. Maybe I'm a victim of the moment with Golden State, but if Curry leads the Warriors to a deep spring run, we are certain to see something special.

Rachel Nichols, CNN and Turner Sports broadcaster:

Alex Rodriguez. There will be many (many, many) athletes who will end up accomplishing more than A-Rod in 2015, but I'm fascinated by things I've never seen before, and I'm not sure we've ever seen anything quite like this: A disgraced Hall of Fame candidate tries to make a comeback after a year-long drug suspension with a franchise that clearly doesn't want him but is legally required to pay him a whopping $61 million. In the biggest media market in the world. Oh, and he's turning 40. The Yankees brass has spent this offseason acquiring younger players who will likely marginalize A-Rod into a part-time designated hitter. Are they trying to shame him into retiring? Does A-Rod have any shame left? Stay tuned.

Keith Olbermann, host of ESPN2’s Olbermann:

Given that looking to 2014 everybody basically not only whiffed (Jon Gruden?) but whiffed badly (Brian Wilson?), I hesitate. But if the field is the world and from it I have to pick three longshots, I'll take:

The rapid rise of Anthony Davis

​• Anthony Davis, who seems to be getting better every quarter and might end the year unofficially crowned as the NBA's biggest star;

• Jameis Winston, who is poised to take his talents, especially his capacity for keeping a chain of personal tire fires going simultaneously, into the NFL. One can only imagine the draft issues, conduct reputation debates and finally his rookie season. He could make Johnny Manziel look like an undrafted free agent practice squadder from Bemidji State.

Thus, he might even clash with my third candidate, Roger Goodell. What if the first violator of the league's supposed zero tolerance policy is a controversial, gifted, rookie quarterback? Even if Winston behaves himself, Goodell's lack of self-awareness makes him an excellent guess here. He's screwed up everything, and in each direction. He's the one to watch for headlines, all of them bad, and the owners might finally say no mas in '15, which would be yet another headline story.

So it's them. Unless I end my 35-year not-the-most-fascinating streak, and it's me. 

Jay Onrait, Fox Sports Live anchor:

Jordan Spieth. This is the year all of America learns to pronounce his name correctly. This is also the year he wins his first major and maybe his second. He's already jumped to No. 9 in the World Golf Rankings after back-to-back wins the past two weeks. He doesn't even turn 22 until the summer. You may hear his name spoken by Joe Buck and Greg Norman on occasion when Fox and Fox Sports 1 broadcast our first U.S. Open this June.

Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports reporter:

I imagine this answer will disappoint a lot of people, but the most fascinating person in sports in 2015 will be Alex Rodriguez. Can he still play? Will he still play? Can Yankees management tolerate him? Will they figure out a way to make him disappear? Spring training in Tampa might be the best reality show of the year, sports or otherwise.