Who Won at Missouri?


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To a large list of “Interesting Things Happening In the World of High-Powered Collegiate Sports,” we have an addition. No, it’s not another episode of a marquee coach shoving an assistant or the revelation of a cheating scandal or the construction of a multi-million dollar training facility. What has been in the news is the story of 30 University of Missouri football players who boycotted team activities in response to the alleged slow and ham-fisted responses of university administration to incidences of racial bigotry on the Columbia, Missouri campus, a place a little over 100 miles from the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, ground zero of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yesterday President Tim Wolfe stepped down in the best interests of the university. While hardly alone in making the protest, the African-American members of the football team brought national attention to the case in ways that might have been absent without them. It didn’t hurt that the football coach Gary Pinkel expressed solidarity with his players. Who says that the football coach is not the most powerful (and best compensated) person on campus. One of the side-benefits: Coach Pinkel, leader of the 4-5 Tigers, will be most like be able to retain his job. What athletic director would want to fire a coach who supported his African-American players against an insensitive president?

I’m not so much interested in the racial dimension of the Missouri case as to what it says about status of the college football player, no matter what his race or ethnicity. I’m especially interested in the way that these players went off script. The Missouri 30 are no doubt fueled by a sense of collective integrity and bolstered by many other student protesters on campus, but I would like to think they are also animated by an emerging discord about the exploitation and powerlessness of the college athlete. Even though The National Labor Relations Board punted on the petition of Northwestern University football players to unionize, the mere fact of their request has emboldened other players to question their place in the high-revenue generating enterprises in which they pawns in a big game.

While the grievance of the players is about insufficient administrative support to combat campus racism rather than about player spending money or work conditions or the travel schedule (about  which they might have few complaints), it is a sign of athletes flexing their muscle and not being obedient indentured servants. The steady accumulation of all grievances expressed by athletes may serve to put an end once and for all to the mythology of the student-athlete.

The football players acted very much like disgruntled employees angered by management insensitivity and, because they were in the cat-bird seat, they did something about it. Nothing like the prospect of losing a cool million in game revenues to bring about a quick remedy. Of late what unions have been able to suggest the ouster at the corporate CEO? What consumer boycott has been able to force changes at the top of management so quickly?

I wonder what they are talking about in the offices of the NCAA. The prospect that protesting athletes could jam the cash machine of the power conference teams must be alarming. The refusal to give employee status to college athletes (and thus deny opportunities for unionization) may mean that change will have to come about by “whatever means necessary.”

After the ambiguous resolution of the Northwestern case, football coach Pat Fitzgerald lamented that his players were distracted by the unionization issue during spring drills. He seemed to want to deny his players the right to be true students: to be engaged members of the campus, to see many sides of an issue, and to question authority rather than not simply attend classes frequently enough and do well enough on tests to remain eligible to play football.

I believe that football players should be called employee-athletes rather than student-athletes. I would even like to see an uncoupling of being a student at the university and being a football player for that university; it would solve a lot of problems. The protests of the Missouri 30, socially engaged young men who apparently have learned some history lessons about eyes on the prize, give me some slight pause in my enthusiasm for this recalibration


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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