The Missouri football player strike shows that college athletes are powerful when they stand together, and that should scare the NCAA.
University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe announced his resignation on Monday, thanks in part to what was essentially a strike by the school's football team.
The move came after a turbulent weekend on campus, and in a larger sense ought to remind the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its member institutions where the real power in college sports lies.
On Saturday night, roughly 30 African-American players at Missouri announced that they would refusing to play or practice until Wolfe was removed from office. Wolfe had a series of problematic run-ins with campus protestors from the Concerned Student 1950 movement, who claim that Wolfe has not done enough to change a campus environment that does not welcome black students. A number of racist incidents culminated in someone drawing a swastika out of human feces on the wall of a dorm bathroom.
The entire Missouri team seemingly decided to join the boycott, with coach Gary Pinkel Tweeting a picture stating that they are all standing together:
A number of direct responses to Pinkel's Tweet—and responses elsewhere online—called for Missouri to revoke these athletes' scholarships. Within the context of college sports and their top-down power structure, such responses possess a kind of cold logic: universities almost always have the ability to simply get rid of individual players they don't want. That's not right, but it's the reality.
Indeed, it's nearly impossible to find a way in which college athletes are not controlled by school administrators. They can't use their own images. They can't make money unless the administration signs off on their job. They can't do much of anything besides practice and play their sport. They can't transfer to another school and play sports immediately, unless they get special permission. They have no say in creating the rules they have to live by. They can be dismissed for arbitrary reasons, even if they have a "four-year scholarship."
That's why athletes are fighting back, slowly but steadily. Northwestern football players won, then lost the right to unionize. Plaintiffs in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit won the right for athletes to get paid a little bit, then lost half their ruling on appeal. An Illinois football player spoke out and helped get his coach fired for abusive behavior. There have been wins and losses, and the NCAA and its member schools increasingly are under pressure, yet for now they still hold almost all of the power.
Wolfe's ouster shows how quickly that can flip when athletes stand together—when they don't rely on the courts or advocacy groups to create change, and instead exercise their generally dormant leverage by protesting en masse.
When an individual athlete takes on a single school or the NCAA as a whole, it's usually an uphill battle. And a losing one. A lone football player has no rights and scant leverage. He always can be replaced. He can be outspent in court, and bludgeoned in the court of public opinion. But every football player together?
They can essentially control a university.
Football is of utmost importance to the University of Missouri. Because of football, the Southeastern Conference pays Mizzou $31.2 million per year, and that number is on the rise. Mostly because of football, Missouri brings in $83 million per year. Pinkel is the highest-paid employee in the state.
Missouri couldn't afford to simply cut the scholarships of its football players—not the entire team; not the 30 players who initially decided to boycott—because if it did, it wouldn't have a competitive football team to field. It couldn't fire Pinkel, either, because that would decimate recruiting. Either decision would likely infuriate donors.
The university had no other leverage to fall back on—no favorable federal court ruling, no potential appeal, no political clout. It had other reasons to get this matter resolved quickly, too: If it had to cancel Saturday's game against BYU, it likely would owe that school $1 million. Missouri also would miss out on all the revenues that surround a college football game day, and possibly have to refund all the ticket revenue from that game.
Essentially, this was Missouri's decision: destroy the football program and lose a lot of money, or send Wolfe packing.
As such, Wolfe's departure wasn't surprising. He was backed into a corner. Much like a single football player, he was entirely replaceable, with a salary of only $450,000. Both the Democrats and Republicans in the Missouri House of Representatives already had called for his resignation.
Still, the whole situation had to feel odd for Wolfe. Just a few days ago, he and his school seemed to have all the power over Missouri's football players. Now those same players have shown just how much power they have. In larger sense, their example is a warning for the NCAA and its member schools, whose ongoing denial of athletes' fundamental economic and due process rights—a denial the association would like to ensconce as a matter of federal law—may ultimately push athletes into unifying and taking matters into their own hands.
College athletes have gone on strike before, and come close to striking on a national scale; while it's not an easy thing to motivate and coordinate, there's no real reason it couldn't happen in the future. No real reason to think it wouldn't work, either—same as Missouri, big-time college sports in general are wholly dependent on the money and public goodwill that football and men's basketball players generate, and without those players playing, there's no money. On Sunday, Clay Travis of FOX Sports asked the following on Twitter:
You know what Saban would do? The same thing Pinkel did, and Wolfe as well. The same thing college athletes have done for a long, long time: fall in line.
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect Wolfe's resignation, which was announced shortly after publication.