In a shocking turn of events, in a scant 36 hours, beleaguered University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe went from grimly standing his ground to a complete and total capitulation, resigning his position amidst a storm of protest, and, more importantly, the potential loss of millions in football revenue
It would be disingenuous to ignore the months of work put in by the activist group Concerned Student 1950 and their fellow students and professors, but the power dynamic was flipped from the moment the Missouri football team decided to stand in solidarity, threatening to boycott this weekend’s game against BYU.
While Wolfe’s resignation has in no way solved the racial issues that still pervade on campus, what has become all too clear is that NCAA athletes possess far more political clout than anyone might have imagined and the political will to wield it.
It raises the question: If NCAA athletes threatened to boycott for a couple of weeks, could they begin to put a dent in the until-now unassailable edifice of amateurism itself? Could the NCAA, and its $1 billion-per-year business, change its stance over night?
The irony here is that the NCAA created this golem by turning so-called amateur sports, in particular basketball and football, into a profit-generating colossus.
“So much of the political and social economy of state universities is tied to football, especially in big-money conferences like Southeastern Conference, where Mizzou plays,” Dave Zirin wrote at The Nation. “The multibillion-dollar college football playoff contracts, the multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, and the small fortunes that pour into small towns on game day don’t happen without a group of young men willing to take the field.
“The system is entirely based on their acceptance of their own powerlessness as the gears of this machine. If they choose to exercise their power, the machine not only stops moving: It becomes dramatically reshaped.”
So how would the NCAA react if, for example, on the eve of this year’s Final Four in Houston, all four teams announced that they were going to pack up their gym bags and go home unless they agreed to chuck amateurism into the dustbin of history?
It seems like a far more effective tactic than wading through the muck of the judicial system, where one judge with a fondness for the ol’ alma mater could set the cause back years. Why go toe to toe with the fiscal might of the NCAA and its surplus of over $700 million as of the end of 2014, a number that’s continuing to climb by approximately 3 percent per year?
Would CBS and Turner, having coughed up $10.8 billion for the rights to broadcast tournament through 2014, place a corporate thumb on the scales? And how about the various brands that have generated $7.5 billion in advertising revenue since 2005? Would they sit on their hands while their heavily sponsored show went dark?
Instead of capitulating to the NCAA’s strengths, it seems far wiser to, as Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist and partner at OSKR, an economic consulting firm specializing in expert witness testimony told The New York Times, shift the venue to “the one place where young minority voices have economic power… sports.”
There is a precedent here, though not nearly on the scale that would be required to result in real change.
“College athletes have gone on strike before, and come close to striking on a national scale,” Kevin Trahan wrote at VICE Sports. “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.”
It’s worth noting that there has been an uptick in activism throughout the sports world of late, and it’s starting to filter down to the college ranks.
The Daily Beast emailed Schwarz and he said he was surprised that Wolfe folded so quickly. He expected that there’d be a significant pushback against the athletes. He thought there would be an attempt to demonize them, mirroring what occurred during Northwestern University’s push to unionize.
But if the NCAA was presented with a legitimate threat to its profits, such as a walkout during March Madness or before the Bowl Championship Series, he thinks there’s a chance it might work.
“I think the networks would go to the NCAA and say that without athletes, they have no product, and that they should find a way to cut in the athletes,” he wrote. “Once that happened, we’d quickly see that amateurism isn’t what drives consumer demand, and we’d all adjust, just like people did when the forward pass was introduced to football or the shot clock or the three-point shot were introduced to basketball.”
That doesn’t mean that a massive labor protest is definitely in the offing. Schwarz explained that the risk of the loss of scholarships, or being branded a “troublemaker” for those with a legitimate shot at going pro, remains a serious stumbling block to a unified front, especially for a group largely populated by young African Americans.
“Race and age matters,” he wrote. “I frequently say that 45-year-old white men would never stand for having their industry made ‘amateur’ but it is easier for society to think athletes have it ‘good enough’ when they are younger and less likely to be white than the median voter.”
Schwarz also insisted that the cases currently in litigation are just as important as any potential labor action, but if the courts refuse to recognize the economic rights of athletes, “this is a roadmap for how to use the power to say ‘no’ to make progress as a last resort” and “concerted action like we saw this week will be much more common.”
“In a normal economic market, such drastic measures wouldn’t be needed, because competition for talent would drive the market price to the fair level,” he added. “Competitive markets allow for the use of economic power without making it an all-or-nothing. But if the legal process ends without something approximating market rights for athletes, I think all that will be left to athletes is the power to (threaten to) destroy the industry and they may see that threat as the only tool left to them.
“The absence of the market makes it into an all-or-nothing ultimatum.”
There is a way to avoid this kind of mutually assured destruction, but that would require “enlightened schools to make a stand for athletes, to start paying them and force the rest to choose whether they want to join or not,” Schwarz wrote.
“But that too requires courage and sacrifice. Rarely do businesses volunteer to raise the cost of labor just because it is moral. Businesses are pretty amoral.”
There’s a chance to make them a little more moral. And now there’s proof that the athletes themselves have the power to do it.