What does it say when 32 kids on football scholarships at the University of Missouri can bring down both their university chancellor and their university system president in just a day?
It tells us football is king of the college campus and wields way too much influence, but that’s something we’ve known and pretty much accepted for a long time now. Money is an expression of priorities, and at the University of Georgia, for example, it’s not news the embattled Mark Richt makes several times the salary of his nominal boss, university president Jere Morehead. Until recently at least, Richt had considerably more political clout as well. Even UGA’s defensive and offensive coordinators make more money than Morehead.
But what happened this week in Missouri is something quite different. Black football players — acting with the blessing of their white coach — announced Sunday that they would refuse to play or practice until UM system President Tim Wolfe resigned. Their boycott threat came after weeks of unresolved tension over racial incidents on campus, with black students protesting their concerns were being ignored.
The day after the boycott threat, Wolfe meekly resigned, as did the chancellor of the University of Missouri. The football team then returned to practice, and Mizzou will play its next game as scheduled against BYU on Saturday, avoiding a $1 million penalty had it forfeited the game.
I’ve never set foot on the Mizzou campus and have no idea what the environment there might be for black students. You probably don’t either. However, it’s hard to believe college football players who have devoted their whole lives to the game would have taken such a dramatic step unless they shared a strong, widespread sentiment something had gone awry.
They also apparently realized for the very first time that college coaches, athletic directors and TV sports networks aren’t the only ones with real clout. As the Saturday heroes — the men who make the dazzling runs, the bone-crunching tackles and humiliating fumbles, the men who suffer the knee damage and concussions — they too have power.
If the school is going to use their names and bodies and talent to build its brand, fill its stadium, attract students, generate tens of millions of dollars in TV revenue, grease alumni donations and reap other benefits that far outweigh the value of the education they are given, well, there’s a thing or two they want in return, such as the basic respect of being heard.
I also suspect a lot of people who see nothing at all wrong with football’s dominant role in university culture will now be yelling, “How dare they?!?” — outraged that mere players have leveraged its prominence for something other than a million-dollar raise or a new indoor practice facility.
You don’t hear that outrage when a successful coach abandons the team he recruited for a richer contract elsewhere. You don’t hear it when players are stripped of their scholarships because the school needs it for a younger, more promising prospect. So if this is the beginning of a shift in the power disparity between the schools and coaches on one hand and those who they recruit as players on the other, it’s long overdue.
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