Northwestern’s football players didn’t get their union, and today’s major college athletes probably won’t ever get their money.
Still, the events in Missouri over the last few days show college administrators would be wise not to underestimate the power of labor — even if it is unpaid.
The football team took a stand, and everyone was forced to listen. The football team took a stand, and the university president was gone.
The issues in Missouri were about race and tolerance, not money and treatment of players. But college officials everywhere should learn some potentially important lessons about power and unity.
Faced with the very real possibility that players would boycott Saturday’s game against BYU — something that could have cost the University of Missouri millions of dollars — complaints about diversity and racial tolerance suddenly became very real. What a hunger strike by one activist couldn’t accomplish in a week, a stand by 30 black players got done in less than two days.
That’s good news for black students and others, whose complaints about racial tensions had largely been ignored at the overwhelmingly white campus. University president Tim Wolfe — who resigned Monday in the wake of the black player revolt — was so clueless he refused to talk to protesters during a homecoming parade last month when they blocked his car before being removed by police.
It shouldn’t have come down to a boycott by football players, but in a way it’s probably good it did. It not only got things done, but it highlighted the power of players who toil for little more than an education and some meals while bringing in millions of dollars every week for their university.
They stood up for what they thought was right, and they won. They stuck together and forced changes that without them would never have been made.
Think about the implications of that, if you will. If players can oust a university president over racial issues, what’s stopping them from getting together to correct other inequities in a college sports system where almost everyone makes money except the players?
Not a lot, which should make some people running college football nervous. Without the cooperation of players they risk losing valuable franchises that bring in tons of cash and help schools market their brands.
“That’s the elephant in the room,” said Ramogi Huma, who was behind the Northwestern union organizing effort. “In addition to players standing up to racism they also have the power they can potentially harness elsewhere. They’re subject to a group of universities imposing unjust rules upon them, and something like this shows they definitely have the power to address it.”
It’s not going to happen overnight, of course. Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, knows that as well as anyone, after years of trying to rally college players around the idea that they should be treated better and compensated more for their duties on the field.
But cracks are beginning to show in the system, beginning with the O’Bannon case that sought payment for the use of player images and the ultimately unsuccessful effort to organize football players at Northwestern. Those efforts prompted the major schools to begin offering guaranteed scholarships and more spending money in an effort to appease players who are smarter about their value than they were a generation ago.
There are other signs that schools are finally beginning to pay attention to the voices of their athletes. On the same day Missouri’s president resigned, Illinois fired athletic director Mike Thomas following a probe into allegations football players were pressured to play despite being injured.
Coach Tim Beckman was previously fired by the university on the eve of the football season after numerous player complaints.
“Today the culture is different and it’s building upon itself,” Huma said. “Players are now spontaneously speaking out on issues.”
Indeed, players are finding their voices. They’re growing tired of blindly accepting things as they are just because it’s the way things have always been.
They’re still about the only ones not making any money. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any power.