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Sensing a shift in atmosphere for NCAA and student-athletes


– “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

At the risk of inciting the crazy separatists who harbor visions of “taking back our country,” I offer the above quote as a reminder. There is no progress without struggle. Only agitation can break stagnation, whether the goal is civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights … or athletes’ rights.

The University of Missouri football team’s protest had nothing to do with NCAA policies, procedures or prohibitions. The players weren’t seeking a more equitable share of the copious loot they generate. They didn’t take a stand for better healthcare after injuries render them useless to schools.

Controlling their likenesses wasn’t on the list of demands. Neither was redefining impermissible benefits nor receiving academic support past their athletic eligibility. No, the team’s threatened boycott wasn’t about them, or athletics, at all.

And that’s why the NCAA should be very, very afraid.

If the Mizzou protest leads to athletes using their leverage in NCAA reform – a battle primarily fought by administrators, lawyers and journalists – there’s no telling how much damage will be inflicted on the billion-dollar college-sports complex.

“If the players don’t play, the pyramids fall,” former Nike and Adidas executive Sonny Vaccaro told Yahoo Sports.

As we saw Monday, when Missouri president Tom Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced their resignations, athletes have incredible power. Protests amidst racial tensions had engulfed the campus for several weeks, including a hunger strike by one student. But the nation was oblivious until the football team weighed in and drew attention like a Sumo wrestler directing traffic.

It’s a good bet that Wolfe and Loftin would still have their jobs if 32 players hadn’t tweeted their support for the protests. It’s also a good bet that coach Gary Pinkel would have a difficult time recruiting future stars if he had come out against those 32 players. By galvanizing the team and coaching staff – blacks and whites together – Pinkel helped push the movement over the edge with a tweeted photo of unity.

The change they enacted was largely symbolic. The removal of two officials just might lead to substantial measures that address the problems, but that work remains undone. However, any good that follows is undeniably a result of the team’s action, whether you applauded or were appalled.

The cause is easy enough to support, unless you favor racial slurs and swastikas on campus. Finding allies will be more difficult if student-athletes turn their attention inward. Few issues in college sports are as divisive as “pay-for-play” or other forms of compensation beyond a scholarship.

Here’s the thing, though: Leverage tends to make opponents see things your way, if it leaves a choice at all.
Vacarro says a high-profile basketball team in the 1990s – widely believed to be UNLV – considered a Final Four boycott to protest its exclusion from the spoils of rampant commercialism. If a team actually pulled that off today, the ripple effect would result in million-dollar losses for the school, conference, networks and various corporate sponsors.

Those players might never receive a dime for their trouble but they would leave gaping holes in other people’s pockets. Officials and administrators could find themselves in an intense game of “chicken,” risking an expensive collision if athletes went through with a work stoppage.

Of course, we can’t really call it a work stoppage, because the NCAA has staked its entire operation on claiming that athletes are not employees.

In courts, at Congressional hearings and on every media outlet possible, the NCAA has sworn up and down that college athletes are just regular students, no different from those in the theatre club or on the debate team. That athletic scholarship that provides tuition, room and board? It’s no longer tied to athletic performance, a recent reform that the NCAA made (along with providing athletes the full cost-of-attendance) under pressure from sniff-testers.

Revoking the scholarships of athletes who boycott would be akin to admitting that they’re employees and you find them in breach of contract. Regular students don’t lose their financial aid for protesting.

Then again, regular students don’t generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue and essentially serve as advertising worth nearly as much.

You say fans cheer for the name on front of the jerseys and not the back? That’s absolutely true. But there’s a reason TV networks and advertisers don’t spend millions on Division III games, which is the quality you’d have if all the major-college athletes sat out. And good luck filling 100,000-seat stadiums with the equivalent of intramurals.

“(Missouri) highlights for players across the nation how much power they have to affect change,” National Collegiate Players Association founder Ramogi Huma told Sports Illustrated. “It’s interesting because at some point you wonder if this is the point where players truly start to connect the dots in a real way.”

The powers-that-be hope that isn’t the case. Otherwise, their cartels fall apart and the center cannot hold.

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