Let me start with a confession: I never heard about the racist incidents at the University of Missouri until its football team threatened to strike unless the university president resigned. Some of the blame for my ignorance is due to me for complacently living in my white coastal bubble, and some to the national media for not treating, say, a swastika made of human feces at a major state university as worthy of coverage. However you divvy up the blame, though, I’m confident I’m not alone in only having become aware of the story once the team got involved. The football players didn’t show any more courage than Jonathan Butler, the student who threatened to starve himself to death unless President Wolfe resigned, but they certainly showed more ability to attract media attention. And, of course, more ability to achieve the protest’s aims. On Sunday, President Wolfe was saying he had no intention of resigning. Early on Monday, he was gone, along with the campus chancellor, who will resign at the end of the year.
As several writers have noted, this is a watershed moment in the empowerment of college athletes: in effect, the football team deposed two major university administrators. The Mizzou strike has generally been cheered among progressive writers: football players, so often assumed to be aloof from the functioning of the college, took a bold professional risk to speak up for their fellow black students, who are under-represented on campus but over-represented on the football team. It’s a sign of solidarity and political consciousness that would excite just about anyone on the left. The progressive columnist Kevin Drum, however, was wary of celebrating, given what the incident says about the influence that athletics wields. “Are we really happy that college football players apparently have this much power?” he asked.
That’s a fair question, but it’s kind of late in the game to be asking it. By and large, groups and institutions that command a lot of money and media attention for a university tend to be influential within that university. Spurred on by money from alumni boosters and TV deals, Division I universities have voluntarily handed over a huge amount of influence to their sports programs (more precisely, their football and basketball programs). It’s not new that athletics is a major power on campus; It’s just that, in the past, it hasn’t been the players wielding that power.
And that’s exactly what made this protest so brilliant, and so pivotal. Division I football and basketball players are like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians: they’re a gargantuan source of income for their universities, but they’re constrained by the petty monopolism of the NCAA, without a clear way to gain any of the rewards of their labor. The other recent case of football players getting involved in political matters—Northwestern’s football players’ attempt to be classified as employees, and hence eligible for union protection—hit a dead end when the NLRB wasn’t willing to touch the question.
But the value these players represent to the university, and the leverage that gives them, doesn’t just dissipate because they’re not getting paid. In fact, the players’ amateur status is a tactical advantage: since they’re not paid for their labor, it’s much easier for them to withhold it.
In a sense, the football players put the central myth of the NCAA—that they are primarily students, not the essential components in a billion-dollar business—to the test. If the players are students, they have just as much stake in the campus culture as any other student does—except other students don’t have the power to cost the university a million dollars in a single day. So the football players derive power from both their nominal amateur status and their de facto professional (though unpaid) status. As a matter of rhetoric, the sham amateurism shields these players from some of the dismissal that paid professional athletes encounter when they venture into politics: it’s hard to say “just shut up and do your job” to athletes who are not, supposedly, employed to do that.
(I mean, of course you can find nobodies on Twitter saying anything, and I’m sure quite a few of them are saying that those football players should just shut up and do their job. It does not seem, though, that this argument caught very much traction, considering that both the coach and national college football writers supported the protest.)
What’s exciting about this protest is that it was so immediately successful, suggesting an opportunity for other programs that might want to flex their muscle within their respective universities. Mizzou, after all, is not a major program within their conference. If their strike can take down an embattled president, imagine what a strike by the players of Alabama or Ohio State could accomplish. Of course, those players, being more likely to be drafted by the NFL, have more to lose, and different circumstances will produce different results; for instance, it’s possible that without support from the coach this protest would have sputtered, and who knows if that support will be forthcoming in future cases. But no one can now say it’s out of the question, and it’s hard to imagine that other athletes aren’t inspired by the way Mizzou players were able to secure for themselves exactly what they deserve: open acknowledgment of their importance.
I think it’s fair to be ambivalent, like Drum is, about the idea of athletes exerting this kind of political power—the emergence of the sports teams as major factions to be appeased could just lead to less clout for other campus stake-holders, like non-athlete undergrads and adjunct faculty, whose interests won’t always align with those of the athletes. (Though we should note football and basketball coaches have enjoyed dictatorial power for decades). But when he asks if we really want to encourage the football team in its great influence, my answer is an emphatic yes, because this could be an important step towards the change that most directly affects these athletes, a change that’s long overdue: the ability to receive some of the vast financial value they’re creating. If I’m right and the amateur status of these players is part of what enables their protest, it entirely changes the cost-benefit analysis around how to treat college athletes. If more Division I football and basketball players start to wield power commensurate with their value to the university, administrators—who have had two casualties from such a protest already—may finally start to question whether the benefits of exploitation are worth the headache of putting huge amounts of influence in the hands of a group of exploited students with little to lose. They may find that they prefer to deal with employees, whom they can incentivize, than serfs, whom they can’t.