The threat of a football strike by the University of Missouri’s football team created a ripple of fear that swept across the National Collegiate Athletic Association and ended with the resignation of a University president.
While the NCAA powers that be digested the loss of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, the media stoked fears of the newfound power of collegiate athletes. They worried that a blueprint had been created – one that could lead to the eventual payment of players, or to shorter practice times or to any of a number of possible outcomes. The thought of collegiate athletes striking led to a fear that change was coming. That fear has been growing for years.
The press fanned those flames with multiple stories with writers marveling at the power college athletes might have. Stories by Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press or items from the Minneapolis Star Tribune discussed the power of athletes. Rochelle Riley, another columnist from Detroit, summed up the mood of the press when she wrote:
“That those young men stood up is worth marking in time. If other athletes realize their power, take stands, demand change, we can look at the University of Missouri football team’s action as a catalyst. We might see that the match they lit caught fire, unlike other player protests over the past 70 years that were ignored or cost players their scholarships.”
The athletes even drew the attention of Gov. Jay Nixon, who released a statement saying that the university must address concerns over “racism and intolerance.”
“Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state,” Nixon said in the release.
“That the governor didn’t get involved until the players did speaks to that power. Now we watch and see whether the match these players lit yields a fire on any other campus or about any other issue.”
“Like getting paid,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
The actions of Missouri’s football players shook an already crumbling power structure concerning college athletics. For years, the structure supposedly consisted of the NCAA at the top, followed by collegiate conferences, individual athletic institutions, the coach and finally, the players. The missing link in this power structure was television networks and the corporations that owned them.
The networks supplied the NCAA and the conferences with unheard of money, enough that colleges allowed changes unheard of a few years ago. Instead of college football being saved for Saturdays, games were played on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Game times were switched to early morning in some instances and late at night in others to allow a better lineup of games. Television even changed the rules of volleyball to make the sport more television friendly.
Networks paid for these changes, especially the power five conferences. In May, USA Today reported all members of the Southeastern Conference had received $31.3 million in television revenues from the conference. That amount equaled more revenue than 152 NCAA Division I universities’ total sports revenues for 2014. The University of Missouri earned a total of $83.7 million in sports revenues in 2014.
All of this money comes from the efforts of athletes on the field, and a group of players, threatening not to play, was able to completely reverse the power structure.
The media responded — some with fear of the athletes’ new power, others hoping the changes would come quickly. The changes to the power structure of the NCAA have been slow, earned through victories in the courtroom, a slow process at best.
But the courtroom victories changed the way the NCAA treats its athletes. One was a court settlement this year compensating players such a former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller for the use of his likeness in video games. Keller and other NCAA athletes won a $60 million settlement from the NCAA and video game makers.
In another case, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon won a federal court decision that NCAA amateurism rules violate federal anti-trust law. Judge Claudia Wilken even ordered the NCAA to pay college basketball and football players up to $5,000 per year in image and likeness rights. An appeals court agreed that the NCAA rules violated anti-trust, but did not agree to the $5,000 payments.
Currently, the NCAA is waiting on another case to come through the dockets. Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer who defended Tom Brady in Deflategate, is suing the NCAA, challenging its use of only scholarships as an antitrust violation.
“The main objective is to strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate,” Kessler told ESPN. “In no other business — and college sports is big business — would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn.”
While lawsuits may erode the foundation of the NCAA’s amateurism rules the thought of a strike is an outright attack on Fortress NCAA. Television money, the driving factor in the popularity and profitability of the NCAA, may also be the organization’s downfall. The influx of money has led to the rise in coaches’ salaries, better facilities, etc., but it also has led to a greater spotlight on the players creating the product the NCAA sells.
The idea of college students standing up for a cause and threatening to not play, created ripples throughout the NCAA. The power is shifting.
The question becomes whether a group of NCAA athletes in a crucial situation (say the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or the NCAA football playoffs) would be able to get enough players to walk away from the competitive challenge of their lives, to stand up for an ideal.
The example of the Missouri football team worked well in this instance because the stand had to do over racism, viewed as an “acceptable” cause.
But how might the press react to college athletes refusing over lack of money to play a key game? The probability is that the press, currently friendly to the cause of the college athlete, would not be so kind. Reaction from fans likely would be downright hostile. For proof, simply search “Ed O’Bannon” on Twitter and read the tweets from fans blaming him for their being unable to play NCAA football on EA Sports.
What is unmistakable is that the issues and stakes in college sports have changed.
For years, media attention concentrated on the players’ successes and failures in the classroom or in recruiting scandals. But when the spotlight turned to the reality of the players’ situations, the NCAA couldn’t obscure the reality that billions of dollars are made off college athletes, many of whom aren’t ready for college, aren’t prepared for the real world after college and aren’t paid for their efforts.