Today's athletes can change tomorrow -- but only if they choose to do so

Mark Smith for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 21 Ideas of the Year Issue. Subscribe today!

WHEN THE YEAR 2013 drew to a close, it did so with the expectation of change and responsibility. Champions were crowned, but the year was distinctive because Mike Rice was fired as Rutgers men's basketball coach for humiliating his players, because Jason Collins came out as gay and because Richie Incognito was suspended from the Miami Dolphins for his mistreatment of teammate Jonathan Martin.

In each case, the message was clear: The decades of boys being boys, of the male athletic language of muscle and misogyny, would no longer be the accepted cultural norm. Neither coaches nor players could use derogatory terms for women (and their anatomies) as metaphors for weakness -- at least not so publicly and so brazenly. Then in 2014, Derrick Gordon and Michael Sam came out. In an uncloseted world, teammates had to think twice before speaking in slur. Even among 300-pound tough guys, bullying was once shrugged off as a province of the weak, but, like concussions, it became a serious word about a serious workplace issue. Jobs and careers were at stake. Men needed to find another language because the old one appeared to be dead.

This year and next will be connected by another step in shattering the old orthodoxy: athletes using their power to challenge the system. In 2014, NBA players were prepared to boycott games unless new commissioner Adam Silver acted decisively on Donald Sterling. In 2015, the Missouri football team put its enormous clout behind a student movement that toppled a university system president and a university chancellor.

The players, should it be a mission they choose to accept, are on the verge of revolution. Only to the deniers or the naive is each step an isolated incident, whether the conversation is Ed O'Bannon suing the NCAA, unionization at Northwestern, players forcing an owner's ouster or Missouri football threatening a boycott if student demands are not met. Combined with the resurrection of protest as a weapon on American streets, times are changing. The money in sports is enormous, and the systemic issues of inequity remain heinous: scholarships that ostensibly provide educational compensation in lieu of a paycheck; coaches leaving for more money while most players must sit out a year after transferring. But the generational belief that an unfair system cannot be changed is not shared by students who slept in tents until they received some say.

There is, however, one important caveat: Athletes do not seem particularly interested in the revolution that sits at their fingertips. Like most Americans, players don't want revolution nearly as much as they want a better seat at the table, which explains why the power of their collective vocal cords has been used for issues with short-term goals and not for the collective reinvention of a system.

The stakes are higher for the African-American basketball and football players, who must navigate a different world socially in a time of disastrously failed integration and navigate in an industry in which post-playing opportunities in the game are severely limited or virtually nonexistent. Still, player power is greater today than it was when the Black 14 were removed from the University of Wyoming football team in 1969 for a proposed protest in a game against BYU, in solidarity with a student protest of the LDS Church's racist practices. Additionally, the times are different, as the question of player inequity receives a more sympathetic ear from a public far less fooled by the hoax of "amateurism" in a billion-dollar sports world.

Fueled by the spirit of protest, from Occupy to concussion suits to Black Lives Matter, the year 2015 has revealed that the power of the player and the attitude of the times are coalescing, and the near shutdown at Missouri might be eclipsed by a larger, national action. Maybe players will one day organize and shut down the entire system, choosing not to play in the Final Four or the College Football Playoff, the two most lucrative events college sports offers. Or maybe not.

What is clear is that a dormant voice awoke this year with enormous implications. Of all the sports stories of the year, Missouri was the most powerful. The message was sent: It is the players who will decide if yesterday is no longer today.