sports

Missouri protest exposes NCAA's greatest fear

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Yahoo Sports

From way out in California, Sonny Vaccaro, the retired Nike and Adidas executive and longtime proponent of student-athlete rights, looked on as the University of Missouri football team organized a protest over the weekend, refusing to practice or play until school president Tim Wolfe was "out of office."

In less than a day the movement grew from a single tweet from 32 black players to the support of perhaps the whole team, including head coach Gary Pinkel and the athletic department.

By Monday morning, poof, Wolfe was gone, resigning his presidency that he held onto across months despite protests, complaints, a tent city on campus and even a hunger strike by a graduate student.

It was the football team that supplied the momentum and media attention that nothing else could.

No matter where someone stands on the issues surrounding Missouri, the way they were handled or the remedy of firing Wolfe, the power of the players that was suddenly displayed here is undeniable.

"This is what I've believed could happen for 30 years and what I think is the deepest fear for the NCAA – athletes control what happens on campus," said Vaccaro. "This is an unbelievable step forward for athletes."

Universities long ago placed an undue importance on athletics – notably football and basketball. This is because of their ability to positively affect almost all segments of campus life.

These two sports drive the most media coverage and marketing possibilities. They are seen as a key for fundraising. They are believed to be major draws for prospective students. They can sway politicians to support the school through public funding. They can rally surrounding communities and prop up the economics of college towns.

And they can just be a lot of fun.

As a result coaches are paid millions more than presidents, let alone professors. Athletic facilities are opulent in ways academics could never dream. Entire television networks have been built around the games, a way to draw money out of every cable-subscribing home in the region. They don't do that for chemistry departments.

So what happens if the players who bring in all that money and all that attention and all that passion stand together, not just behind whatever hot-button issues sprout up on their specific campuses, but even bigger, broader ones, including their own rights inside this multibillion dollar endeavor? What about something compelling such as demanding better care and post-graduate insurance for catastrophic injuries?

In how many locker rooms are athletes marveling at what just happened in Columbia?

"The Missouri kids crossed a line that had never before been crossed," Vaccaro said. "The game has changed."

In the 1990s, Vaccaro was a consultant to a basketball team that seriously discussed not leaving the locker room of a Final Four game to demand a share of the sports revenue goes to the players. It never went down, but the possibility stuck with him through his years as a grassroots basketball czar and later as a consultant for the landmark Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA.

Organizing athletes was also one of the driving goals behind the recent attempt to unionize football players at Northwestern. In the end that failed, but the success of the Missouri players suggests maybe an actual labor union isn't even needed anymore.

"Players have power," Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker turned leader of the National Collegiate Players Association, an advocacy group for student-athletes that supported things such as the O'Bannon lawsuit and the Northwestern unionization movement.

"The players have always had power on campus, it's just rarely channeled," Huma continued. "Here it was channeled and you see there was enough power to compel a university president to resign."

University administrators everywhere have to fear, or at least be aware, of turning the athletes against them.

"I can tell you that every athletic director in the country is watching this closely," a major program AD texted Yahoo Sports on Monday.

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What is particularly striking about the Missouri situation is despite the relative anonymity of the Tigers' football team, which is just 4-5 on the season, their impact was immense and immediate.

What Vaccaro was discussing in 1990s was a high-profile basketball squad giving up a shot at a potential national title – a lifelong dream no matter what they thought of the NCAA. It also would have required an intense stand, with star players being singled out as they attempted the difficult task of articulating their position in the midst of a media frenzy.

Missouri had none of that. At the time of the protest no one publicly even knew who led it. The Mizzou players never had to hold a media conference or walk off a field of play.

Through modern social media, they simply tweeted out a group picture, relying on the power of the pack. Everything snowballed from there. By the next day Pinkel was tweeting out a picture of the entire team, and offering full support. He may well have been truly supportive. Even if he wasn't, he knew that not doing so would completely crush recruiting. The old days of the bully coach are dead and everyone knows it.

"The athlete of 2015 is different than the athlete of 1995," Vaccaro said.

Huma supported this specific movement in the broader fight against racism, but like Vaccaro he looked on with a different perspective. If there is anyone who would organize future protests against college sports as a whole, it's Huma.

"Of course I can't help but view this through the lens of our movement," Huma said. "What I was encouraged by was that it started with just black players, 30 or 32 black players. But then soon white players and even the coaches stepped in too. It says that if enough [players] start the process, the entire team will follow and even the coaches and administrators."

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College athletics is a multibillion-dollar business built on the expectation of compliance from its workers. For decades players have demanded a greater cut of the ever-expanding pie. Thanks to the O'Bannon lawsuit, student-athletes have begun receiving a cost-of-living stipend to go along with traditional tuition, room and board.

That is not an inconsequential sum but it is also money that college sports has to share. There is plenty more, too.

What was striking about the Missouri-threatened protest was the economics of even the simple regular-season game Saturday against BYU in Kansas City.

If Mizzou was forced to forfeit, it still owed BYU $1 million for agreeing to play. There would also, presumably, be lost revenue from renting out Arrowhead Stadium, not to mention lost profits from gate, parking and concessions, much of which was already budgeted. There could have also been television contractual demands.

There were millions on the line here.

"That's a lot more than the president made," Huma said.

According to public records, Wolfe's salary was $459,000, and while there are greater concerns than just one-off revenue at stake, those figures apparently weren't lost on the student-athletes. Money drives everything.

In 2012, Missouri left its longtime home in the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference, mostly due to the possibility of additional revenue. That included the formation of the SEC Network, which charges at least $1.30 per month ($15.60 per year) to everyone with at least a Tier One cable subscription in the states with league teams, no matter whether the subscriber wants the channel or would ever watch it or any sports event.

It's essentially an SEC Sports Tax, which means Missouri athletics affects almost everyone in the state. If a similar $15-a-year higher-education tax were ever put on the ballot in most states, it would likely lose in a landslide.

The SEC Network, however, requires games to actually be played. Same with deals with CBS and ESPN. It's part of how a mediocre football team without a star player or an identifiable leader used a tweet or two to change the leadership of their university system, all by refusing to practice and perhaps play in a run-of-the-mill non-conference game.

"It took less than 48 hours," Huma said with an impressed tone.

Not all situations are similar, or as volatile, so where this is headed next is unknown. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Inside college sports, however, the potential awakening of the athletes could change everything.

"If the players don't play," Vaccaro said, "the pyramids fall."

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