An Overdue Power Shift in College Sports – Wall Street Journal

The Missouri football team huddles during warmups before the start their game against South Carolina on Oct. 3.

The silly modern circus of big-time college sports relies upon the tacit agreement of several intertwined parties: 1) the eager television networks lavishing conferences and schools with buckets of money; 2) fancy head coaches who think this money gives them power; 3) trustees and administrators who also think this money gives them power; and 4) athletes who are supposed to think they have zero power when they actually have a lot.

This tilted framework has allowed sports like football and men’s basketball to swell into staggering economies in which schools can earn many millions, coaches get compensated like rock stars and the players…well, players don’t share in the windfall. Players get a scholarship—and a scholarship is not nothing—but basically they’re treated as temporary, replaceable parts in a system where the real cash and clout flows elsewhere.

That imbalance may be ending. I want to be careful here to underline that what transpired at the University of Missouri over the past couple of days—president Tim Wolfe resigned Monday morning amid a months-long controversy over his alleged inaction toward a series of racial incidents on campus—followed the actions of many others in the school community. Some of this had little or nothing to do with sports (a graduate student, for example, had begun a hunger strike).

Still, there appears to be little question that the decision of the Missouri football team to threaten a boycott of practices and games—in middle of a season, and supported by their coaches—accelerated the process. You can certainly agree or disagree with team’s decision to boycott or the idea that Wolfe’s departure will promote healing at the school. But this is not in dispute: in the shakeup at Mizzou, college athletes in big-time revenue sports have seen how much power they potentially have.

And that feels significant. This is hardly the first time a student population has demanded change in a school’s leadership—protests are as much a part of the college experience as midterms and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. It’s important to underline that a protest is hardly a guarantee that leadership will be compelled to react, or should. Missouri, of course, could have declined to act. What feels significant here is the unusual clout of a major college sports team in 2015. Missouri’s football roster took a position without any assurance of a response, but a response was stunningly quick, undoubtedly owing to the profile and economic impact that even a 4-5 team possessed.

A protestor is part of a wall that Concerned Students 1950 created to block the media from entering the camp during the Concerned Students 1950 protest on Monday.

There have been efforts elsewhere to portray the turmoil in Missouri as an example of an administration yielding to a new era of student oversensitivity or political correctness run amok. I respectfully disagree, even if I’m not thrilled about reports of students seeking to bar media from demonstration. It wasn’t students that gave a football team the leverage to force change. It was the school, chasing dollars and glory, building the team into an essential campus resource. I think that’s an important relationship to keep in mind as we witness the continued madness over college sports.

Missouri tight end Jason Reese, right, speaks with members of the media after leaving the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex on Sunday.

We’ve grown accustomed to the dollars and obsessiveness surrounding these games—the ridiculous coach-as-celebrity worship, the lucrative sponsorship arrangements, the spectacle of grown adults on TV shouting at each other all day over the successes and mistakes of young men still learning on the job. The polite illusion of amateurism has long been shattered; the spectacle has literally become a multibillion dollar industry. We can’t be OK with players being used to promote that spectacle and not OK with players turning around and using the spectacle for themselves. Likewise, we can’t endorse the notion of “student-athlete” and then ask athletes to remove themselves from campus life. We don’t get to say how the power of college sports can be deployed. (I would say hang on for athletes to start using their leverage to take a bigger piece of the financial pie, but that skewed system is already under siege.)

We will see in the coming weeks and months what happens at Missouri, if a change in leadership indeed results in an improved understanding and atmosphere on campus. But the impact of this episode has the potential to be far-reaching, cutting to the heart of the lopsided model long promoted by the NCAA and its beneficiaries. The long-standing agreement in big-time college sports has given the power to schools and asked the athletes on the field to be grateful and respectfully wait.

The system is still warped. But athletes have seen that they no longer have to wait.


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