For years, we’ve debated whether college football players should be paid. Their games bring in a fortune. Their TV revenue builds stadiums and libraries. Yet, the players get only scholarships and living expenses. The money and power, critics say, is highly tilted toward the school.
Recently, we saw a different tilt. The University of Missouri football team threatened to sit out its scheduled game against Brigham Young if Missouri president, Tim Wolfe, didn’t resign.
Within two days, he was gone.
The debate over Wolfe had been brewing for a while. Some students and activist groups thought he wasn’t doing enough to address alleged racially charged incidents.
But it wasn’t until the football team — with the support of its coach, Gary Pinkel — threatened to sit out Saturday’s game that Wolfe quickly stepped down. It’s hardly an accident. Missouri would have had to pay $1 million in forfeiture fees.
Money talks. The president walks.
And players suddenly realize that while they can’t draw paychecks, they can make schools pay.
How far does it go?
You wonder where this leads. Theoretically, if a team wanted a particular professor fired, could it threaten to sit until it happened? Would a school pay a million bucks to protect one job?
What about a commencement speaker? Would a school shell out a fortune, or opt to tell the speaker, “We’ve replaced you”?
It’s a conundrum, created by a bloated sports system that has turned college ball into a multibillion-dollar business. It’s such a huge machine, it can’t stop to adjust. Critics argue that Missouri officials should have threatened the players’ scholarships and told the coach he would be fired. But how many big football schools would dismantle a program midseason? It’s not like you can throw together a team. Alumni would howl. Boosters would have a fit.
In some ways, they have only themselves to blame. Protests have long been a part of college life, but sports teams largely have stayed away. What if they don’t? They are, after all, “student-athletes.” Maybe if they drew paychecks, they’d think twice about what was worth losing them.
Taking a closer look
And that’s the other side of this. While many in the media are hailing the Missouri players for taking a stand, a closer look raises questions.
The state of Missouri is clearly a racial tinderbox these days. And hateful environments never should be tolerated. But there are questions about the actual incidents that spurred Wolfe’s resignation (and the chancellor’s shortly after his). Payton Head, the Missouri student government president, falsely posted that the Ku Klux Klan was seen on campus; he later retracted it. He’s the same guy who claimed someone in a red truck yelled a racial slur at him. Hasn’t been proven — and it supposedly happened off campus — yet it was part of why Wolfe was ousted. What exactly does a president do about an off-campus driver?
Two other incidents — a swastika smeared in feces and one drunken person yelling a slur — reportedly were confirmed. That seems to be all the major claims. The football players didn’t complain of specific racist incidents. Yet they stood squarely behind the demands of the group Concerned Student 1950, which insisted that Wolfe not only resign, but acknowledge, in a handwritten note, his “white male privilege,” then read it to the world in a news conference. That sounds more like what captors do with hostages.
Does the team believe its white players should acknowledge their “white male privilege”? And now that the president and chancellor are gone, will nobody get drunk and yell something? If a player does that, will the team call for his expulsion — or rally around him?
Events like those at Missouri and Yale — where students shouted down a white professor over the issue of insensitive Halloween costumes — and a female undergraduate screamed at him, “Who the (expletive) hired you?” and “You’re disgusting!” — lead some people to wonder, “Who’s running these schools?”
Ironically, this has been the question long asked about big football universities, where coaches (including Missouri’s coach) get paid way more than presidents.
If justice is at issue, it shouldn’t take a football team to acknowledge it. And if issues are resolvable, a football team shouldn’t sway the consequences. But when it costs a million dollars to cancel a game, that’s a business. And these schools are in that business. The kids at Missouri figured this out. And it won’t be long before other teams do as well.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom. Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” Nov. 28 at the Barnes & Noble in Huron Village in Ann Arbor and noon Dec. 3 at the Chapters in Windsor’s Devonshire Mall.