College Athletes Are Choosing Their Battlefields: Mizzou as an Instructive Model

University of Missouri students recently claimed a small but significant victory for racial justice, following the resignations of the university chancellor and system president. For several months, Mizzou Black student activists had engaged in courageous acts of civil disobedience to raise awareness about rampant campus racism--hunger strikes, campus take-overs, marches, and demonstrations--while actively working to dismantle racial systems of oppression at Mizzou.

Because of the common cause, Mizzou football players also joined forces with hunger striker Jonathan Butler and other students to push for racial justice.

The players issued the following statement: "The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe 'Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.' We will no longer participate in any football-related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!"

Indeed, the participation of Mizzou football players in the staged protests--with backing from their coaches--raised the stakes. Their actions eventually provided the leverage and national news frenzy necessary to pressure the school's senior level administration to respond to their demands for an improved campus racial climate.

Although all of the Mizzou student demands have not yet been met, The Washington Post described the ousting of the university's top leaders as "a swift victory for student activists"; The MMQB with Peter King called it "a watershed moment in the realization of the bargaining power of college athletes"; and the Time headline read, "Missouri President Toppled by the Power of the Student Athlete."

To be clear, the speedy resignations of university leaders were more likely a business move, and less about racial justice. The football players' boycott amid racial turmoil could have cost the university more than $1 million in game cancellation fees, according to reports. And from all indications, the Missouri Board of Curators has not moved as hastily to improve the campus racial climate or to address the demands of student activists. Derrick Bell's theory of interest convergence reminds us that dominant groups, largely comprising white stakeholder groups, will accommodate minority rights (or racial justice) when it is in their own interest--in other words, when white interests converge with racial justice.

Importantly, pressures are mounting against public universities to generate revenue because of steep state budget cuts. The University of Missouri's political actions are a prime example of their current neoliberal model, where resources that can generate significant revenue, such as the athletic department, too often trump student basic rights and well-being.

Under this current model, President Timothy M. Wolfe couldn't even salvage his own appointment.

Meanwhile, the Mizzou football players' successful threat of a boycott could serve as an instructive model for other college athletes nationwide. In particular, their bold efforts add currency to the notion that similar, carefully planned strategies could be employed by college athletes to compel athletics power brokers to actively listen to and address ongoing concerns about their basic rights and well-being. College athletes can certainly capitalize on this convergence of interests.

"Student athletes have had this power and they have been trying to exercise this in different ways for the last couple of years, as we have seen student athletes organizing around amateurship vs. being able to gain some stipends," noted Dr. Scott Brooks, Associate Professor of Sociology at Mizzou. "The revolt of the athlete has never gone too far beneath the surface."

College athletes are critically aware of the gross exploitation of the athletics enterprise, in which ongoing questions are raised about compensation fairness for their labor.

A handful of scholars, educators, and reformers have, in fact, made compelling cases that the most publicized athletes in the high profile sports of football and men's basketball--athletes who are disproportionately Black--are being denied their fair market value. As well, they are not receiving basic rights and protections, including guaranteed multiyear athletic scholarships to help them complete their degrees, guaranteed medical benefits if they are injured during sport participation, and health and safety rules that reduce injuries that cause brain trauma.

The power of solidarity among college athletes is evident, as the immediate impact of the Mizzou players' strike is being felt by athletics stakeholders nationwide. Already, the backlash has begun. Those who gain the most from the multi-billion dollar college sports enterprise have been working through the night to change the narrative with all deliberate speed. Less than five days after the resignation of Mizzou's president, an ESPN College GameDay analyst stated, "I hope [college athletes] do not abuse their power." Others have called for Mizzou athletes to lose their athletic scholarships for their actions.

The political stance by Mizzou football players has invoked fear in athletics power brokers who benefit quite handsomely from the labor of primarily Black athletes. In 2015, the NCAA's revenue will exceed $1 billion, and the average pay for a head coach in big-time football or men's basketball now exceeds $1 million. Yet, although college athletes devote more than 40-50 hours per week to sport-related activities, they are not ensured basic rights and protections, nor are high profile athletes graduating at a respectable rate.

With the high stakes investment in college sport, today's athletes are able to apply pressures in ways that their counterparts in the 1960s could not even imagine. A current Division I men's basketball player, who wanted to remain anonymous, commented: "This is just the beginning...we understand the power and leverage we have to make changes to college athletics."

The Mizzou players' protest against racism, the Grambling State players' boycott for better playing conditions, the Northwestern University football players' union bid, and college athletes' protests of the mistreatment of Black bodies at the hands our nation's police officers are all examples of their activism. These actions, coupled with several court rulings in recent years and a pending antitrust claim filed by Jeffery Kessler, do indeed demonstrate their power and authority. They also demonstrate that the validity of the NCAA's amateurism defense has weakened over time, primarily because of the undeniable existence of economic and commercial interests that conflict with amateur ideals in today's college games.

Athletics power brokers' self-interests are exposed more than ever; we are witnessing increasing cracks in their proverbial armor, signifying a continued need for athletes to march forward in solidarity--even among those who mobilize and organize behind the scenes.

Without question, college athletes are finding their way and intentionally choosing their battles in the name of fairness and in the name of basic rights and well-being.

After all, if college athletes can force the resignations of senior level university administrators, it is not impossible for them to bargain for a healthy balance between academics and athletics, full funds for the cost of attendance, guaranteed four-year athletic scholarships, guaranteed medical benefits, guaranteed workers' compensation, protection from brain trauma, as well as to make strides toward racial and gender equity, and to receive a portion of NCAA television revenue that can be placed in an escrow account for their post-college years. Now is the time to ensure that the landscape of big-time college athletics will forever change for the better.

Dr. Eddie Comeaux serves as associate professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at UC Riverside. He has published two recent books, Introduction to Intercollegiate Athletics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and Making the Connection: Data-Informed Practices in Academic Support Centers for College Athletes (Information Age publishing, 2015), and has a forthcoming book, College Athletes' Rights and Well-Being: Critical Perspectives on Policy and Practice (Johns Hopkins University Press). Comeaux can be reached at eddie.comeaux@ucr.edu, or @EddieComeaux