College athletes have more power than ever before, almost everyone can agree on that. What is up for debate is whether that will lead to overdue change, or whether it will throw programs into turmoil.
Protests have been rare during the college athletes’ eight-decades and counting campaign for a bigger piece of the pie — and successful protests have been rarer still.
But the winds of change buffeting the power structure of college sports are stronger than at any time since the mini-revolts of the late 1960s and early ’70s that focused largely on civil rights. More and more, today’s athletes are showing a similar willingness to test the limits of their power through protests, organizing efforts and smart use of social media.
Even before a threatened strike by Missouri football players helped lead to the resignation of the school’s president, student athletes were showing their strength off the field.
Two years ago, Grambling State’s football team went public with their complaints over the sorry state of the facilities by forfeiting a game against Jackson State. Last March, Oklahoma’s football team walked out of spring practice in response to a video showing white fraternity members singing racial slurs. In June, a barrage of tweets by former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic (“WHEN @coachbeckman is fired,” one tweet began, “you’ll hear plenty more stories …”) sparked the investigation that actually did get coach Tim Beckman fired three months later.
“People said this before, but I feel like college sports is in very dangerous territory right now,” said Gary Barnett, a former head coach at Northwestern and Colorado now a radio analyst for Sports USA network. “The schools and athletic departments have plenty of problems as it is; add this battle over athletes’ rights to the health issues, like concussions, that are already on the table, and it looks tough to continue on the track we’re on. …
“My greatest fear is what will happen if the tail is wagging the dog,” Barnett added. “But that’s what it feels like from a distance.”
Yet the same image that threatens some in the status quo looks like a positive from the other side of the prism. They say it’s no coincidence athletes are flexing their vocal muscles at the same time a steady stream of challenges to the authority of the NCAA. Major conferences are moving through the courts and federal agencies seeking to expand athletes’ rights and how they’re compensated.
“I think they have a real sense now of the power they can wield,” said Ramogi Huma, the former UCLA linebacker and executive director of the National College Players Association (NCPA), which led the unsuccessful fight to organize football players at Northwestern. “What happened at Missouri is that athletes who train and prepare and love to play demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice to advance a larger cause. In their case, it was to fight against racism.
“Now the question becomes will players prove willing to do the same to address unjust NCAA rules? To fight for better medical coverage? Or more just compensation? … The seeds have been planted before,” he added. “We’ll see if they bear fruit this time around.”
The stakes couldn’t be much higher. College football and men’s basketball are the bedrock of a multi-billion- dollar enterprise that has enriched TV networks and coaches, and turned some university athletic departments into nation-states. No one claims to be in favor of disrupting those games. And the powers-that-be have taken some steps to address issues ranging from safety to scholarship costs.
But two men who might not agree on much else — Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Huma — both said recently they wouldn’t be surprised to find athletes on a picket line in the not-too-distant future. What that might accomplish is anyone’s guess. If the past is any indication, the answer is not much.
Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University, recently compiled a history of labor-management set-tos in college sports dating back to the 1930s and it’s not a very distinguished one. In those early years, student-athletes from Howard, LSU, Pitt and Syracuse all tried or threatened to withhold their game-day services in exchange for a better deal and wound up folding, usually for very little.
In one memorable instance, at the 1961 Liberty Bowl, all it took to derail a threatened strike by Syracuse’s players was a gift of commemorative watches for the players.
But there were small victories, too, most notably perhaps, the members of the 1969-70 Syracuse football who came to be known as the “Syracuse 8.” They staged a lengthy and sometimes-divisive protest seeking academic, medical and on-field equality for black players, a fight that carried implications for athletes everywhere in those racially charged times.
“There are different issues today, and social media has been a game-changer for players already,” Staurowsky said. “They’re a different generation and they’re just beginning to grow into their story, to find where they fit, in a way that may be empowering to them. …
“So,” she said, “if we don’t see more activism coming out of this era, then it will make me wonder whether it will happen at all.”