Thursday, May 24, 2018
Sports

Fight the power? Now the athletes have it

From Washington to Miami, and from Maine to Hawaii, college athletes are watching Missouri and seeing undeniable proof of the power they hold. A show of unity and strength from football players essentially forced Gary Pinkel, the $4 million-per-year coach and most influential man on campus, to back their boycott, which ended when the MU system president and the Columbia campus chancellor each resigned two days later.

Two days.

In two days, a group of college football players affected the change — largely symbolic, it should be noted, but still change — that student protests, faculty complaints, and a grown man starving himself could not.

Those in positions of power do not know how to react in the face of fear. Some of them freeze. It can be a terrifying experience to reach a place of decision-making, personnel management, and seven-figure salaries and then feel the ladder you used to make that climb shake.

This is what it's like to be an administrator or a coach at a major university right now.

The money generated by sports has long given power to coaches, school administrators, chancellors and presidents, and in particular television network executives. But the events at Mizzou are clear proof that with the right cause, motivation, and unity, the real power rests with the athletes.

The purpose of this column is not to tell you what to think of the resignations of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe or chancellor Bowen Loftin, or anything about racism on campuses or modern America. Those worthwhile discussions are being had in many places, among many passionate people.

The intent of this column is to tell you that all of this — the power of sports, the power of football players standing together for a cause, and the swift pace in which this happened — has many college administrators and coaches freaked out.

Because it's the athletes who make it all work, or not, and a college football team essentially tumbling a university's power structure is the clearest proof yet of the power they hold. Careers, donations, school pride, and often the viability of local businesses all depend on college athletes. They have enormous influence. This has long been a sleeping giant, and the alarm is now going off.

As one high-ranking administrator put it, the power college athletes hold in threatening boycotts of games that generate millions at a time is akin to a hammer and nail. It can be used productively, as in the building of a house. Or it can be used destructively, as in tearing something down.

Four years ago, Ohio State president Gordon Gee said of football coach Jim Tressel, "I just hope he doesn't fire me." Now, it's the players who can influence whether powerful men keep their jobs.

In this specific instance at MU, the football players used their platform and influence to support a cause that cannot be tagged with selfish motives. Addressing racism — and there are other issues at play here — is a noble goal.

But what about the next cause?

That's where the fear comes in. The structure of college sports has by definition kept the power away from athletes, with few exceptions. Boycotts have been more whispers.

Rhoades and Pinkel used the phrase "extraordinary circumstances" over and over on Monday, and downplayed this week's events as a precedent. But that is out of their hands now, because as college athletes across the country see their power helping shake the leadership structure in Missouri, it stands to reason this is closer to the beginning than the end.

This is how it's always worked in America. Those with power use it. — Kansas City Star

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