The Power of College Athletes

The right to assemble is a powerful thing. Especially, when those assembling involve football players at a major university.

University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe resigned yesterday as a result of multiple student protests, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the school’s football team inserting itself into the middle of the protests.

Missouri football – 1. University of Missouri – 0.

It was just this past Saturday that approximately 30 of Missouri’s black football players announced that they would refuse to participate in team activities until Wolfe was removed as president. Campus protesters from the Concerned Student 1950 movement claim that Wolfe has not done enough to change a campus environment that does not welcome black students. Multiple racist incidents have been reported culminating in someone drawing a swastika out of human feces on a dorm bathroom wall. I think “a campus environment that does not welcome black students” might be putting it a tad lightly.

On Sunday, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a picture insinuating that the entire football team was joining the boycott.

Personally, I love that these athletes used their influence to stick it to an administration they believed was turning a blind eye to the racist culture permeating on their campus. I’m equally glad that their coach had their backs. College athletes are controlled by school administrators in every way imaginable. They are forbidden from using their own images – let that sink in for a second. They can’t make money unless the administration signs off on it. They can’t transfer to another school and play sports immediately, unless they get special permission. They can be dismissed for any arbitrary reason, even if they have a four-year scholarship. They are basically allowed to practice and play their sport until the university decides it doesn’t need them anymore and then they are discarded. It’s a pretty remarkable scenario.

College athletes across the country are slowly but surely coming to the realization that they carry a lot of influence on their campuses and so they are beginning to fight back. The recent developments on Missouri’s campus are evidence of how quickly the script can flip when athletes stand together and exercise their leverage by organizing a large protest.

The leverage an individual athlete carries is little to none because an individual is easily replaced. But what happens when an entire football team comes together? The resignation of Missouri’s president is a prime example. Missouri football is no different than any other major football program in that it is a huge money machine for its school. The Southeastern Conference pays the University of Missouri $31.2 million per year solely because of the football program. Mizzou brings in around $83 million a year and the football team can be thanked for most of that revenue. Coach Pinkel is the highest-paid state employee at a round $4 million per year. Recently resigned president Tom Wolfe was making around $450,000. Who do you think is going to win that battle?

The threat of Missouri’s football team not taking the field next weekend backed the school into a corner. They couldn’t cut the scholarships of the guys boycotting because then they couldn’t field a competitive team or any team at all – canceling its upcoming game against BYU on Saturday would likely have cost the school at least $1 million. They couldn’t fire Pinkel because that would hurt recruiting and make donors less than happy.

Missouri was handed two choices. On one hand, it could kill their football program and flush a whole lot of money down the toilet. On the other hand, it could tell Wolfe to hit the bricks. That’s really no decision at all.

Will this be the beginning of more college athletes taking matters in their own hands by threatening to boycott? I’m not sure. But if this does begin to happen, there is no reason to think that it wouldn’t work because – just like Missouri – major college sports are entirely dependent upon the money and goodwill that football and men’s basketball players generate, and no players equals no money.

The Missouri football team’s successful protest this week might have done more than accomplishing its ultimate goal – which was getting Tim Wolfe canned. They just might have poked a sleeping bear that could have ramifications on college campuses nationwide.

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A lucky man. Also a lawyer. Classic oxymoron.

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