“It’s not about us, we just wanted to use our platform to take a stance for a fellow concerned student on an issue, especially being as though a fellow black man’s life was on the line,” Missouri defensive back Ian Simon said while flanked by wide receiver J’Mon Moore and defensive end Charles Harris. “Due to the end of the hunger strike, we will be ending our solidarity strike to not practice and returning to our normal schedule as football players. It is a privilege to be playing for the University of Missouri’s football team and we are very thankful for this opportunity. We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that — a game.
“Through this experience, we’ve really began to bridge that gap between student and athlete in the phrase student-athlete by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture. We will continue to build with the community and support positive change on Mizzou’s campus. Though we don’t experience everything the general student body does and our struggles may look different at times, we are all Concerned Student 1950.”
“Let this be a testament to all athletes across the country,” Harris said. “That you do have power. It started with a few individuals on our team and look at what it has become, look at where it’s at right now. This is nationally known and it started with just a few.”
And that’s the scary part, if you are a sports administrator now. As an athletic director at a school in a Power Five conference (“The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.” – no shit, Sherlock.) told USA TODAY Sports,
“That’s the scary part about it. Something can come out of nowhere in a hurry.”
The person, as well as an athletic director at another Power Five conference school, separately emphasized the need, more than ever before, for proactive and consistent communication with student-athletes.
The first athletic director’s initial reaction was: “Man, I’m glad it’s not me — and then I thought, ‘Are we doing enough to have lines of communication open with our student athletes?’ ”
They aren’t really scared about political statements (probably because they aren’t right-wing hacks like Ben Shapiro, who actually wrote of the players without a trace of irony that “Their only job, after all, is to play football.“). What they’re scared of is the student-athletes turning their sights on things that cost ADs real money, which, after all, was the implicit threat behind the Missouri players’ stance. Here’s a scenario from Andy Staples that illustrates that:
Now imagine if players in an entire conference decided they wanted lifetime medical coverage for injuries incurred while playing college football. Or imagine they decided that they merely wanted a bigger cut of the millions that currently go to their coaches, their athletic directors, their locker room waterfalls and to subsidize sports on their campus that don’t make any money. Here are a few potential courses of action and their likely results.
- They could write a strongly worded letter. That would be ignored.
- They could sue. That would take years.
- They could threaten to skip their games. They would have everyone’s attention immediately.
If they did it, the schools, conference and NCAA could do absolutely nothing but begin negotiating. Why? Because those groups gave the athletes the power the moment they got into the business of producing and selling television shows. Then, in an attempt to defend their economic model in court and before the National Labor Relations Board, they took away any opportunity they would have had to threaten retaliation.
The Pac-12 and Big Ten own pieces of their eponymous television networks. The SEC takes a huge licensing fee from ESPN to take part in the SEC Network. All the leagues sell games—television shows, essentially—to networks independent of any conference cable network deal. Media companies pay through the nose for the right to broadcast those television shows. How mad would they be at the people who sold them those shows if the casts suddenly didn’t show up for scheduled episodes?
What could the schools do in such a situation? Nothing. They can’t revoke the players’ scholarships, because the NCAA’s attorneys have spent years spitting out court filings that claim the key reason athletes should not be paid to play college sports is that they are simply members of the student body participating in an extracurricular activity. Northwestern’s attorneys argued to the NLRB that athletes are not employees because they are, in fact, regular students. “Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost,” Northwestern vice president for university relations Alan Cubbage wrote in a statement on March 26, 2014. “We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity.”
Of course athletes are different from regular students. Of course the athletic scholarship is a form of compensation that has far less to do with school than it does with sports. But when you’ve spent years pretending under oath that athletes are average students and their scholarships aren’t tied to their performance on the field, then you can’t yank their scholarships for organizing a boycott. That’s something regular students do a lot. They belong to a very idealistic age group. Protests are part of the deal on a college campus.
To discipline players who boycott would be an admission that their scholarship is compensation for their athletic participation. (Again, of course it’s compensation for athletic participation. The people in charge have chosen to pretend it isn’t.) It would also be an admission that revenue sport athletes aren’t regular students. Regular students wouldn’t lose their financial aid for protesting peacefully.
You can call it awakening the sleeping giant.
“Our student-athletes are smarter than they’ve ever been before,” the first athletic director said. “We’ve worked hard to educate them about where cost-of-attendance (funding) comes from and tell them about their rights and privileges. They’re more aware than ever before.”
Or creating a monster. Either way, it’s a problem. Schools have made their beds and now they’re worried they’re gonna have to lie in them.
It’s about financial control and the fear of that slipping away. The most unattractive part of this has to be how decentralized the threat is. In the absence of a national players’ union, a wildcat strike of SEC players that gets resolved has no effect on, say, Big Ten players and schools. Yet player unionization is anathema to D-1 schools right now.
How carefully can you calibrate throwing bones to the kids to keep a lid on things? That’s a balancing act that I’m not sure the likes of Jim Delany are capable of pulling off, but we’ll see. Because one way or another, another blow up is a growing possibility.