Some believe the ousting of Mizzou president Tim Wolfe was a great day for campus activism. Others think it was a terrifying overreaction of political correctness. There are those that disapprove of how a group of college athletes was the driving force behind the firing. But wherever you sit on the issue, this much is inarguable: We all had a hand in creating this.
There are so many layers to the Missouri situation it’s virtually impossible to tackle them all in one fell swoop. Hunger-strikes, Jonathan Butler, professor Melissa Click, “safe spaces,” campus racism, and student aggression are all topics that deserve attention.
So is the influence of the football team. In our sports snow globe the Mizzou situation doesn’t appear unless it intersects with athletics. So sports fans across the country woke up to this drama when the football team threatened not to play until Wolfe was fired.
It created a flash point moment where coach Gary Pinkel stood in support of his team and the hunger strike instead of the administration. Among all the images on campus, this was maybe the most interesting of all. Pinkel, representing management, siding with labor and against the administration. One of the grown adults helping force out another grown adult because the kids wanted it.
Which of course has created the fear that teenage athletes now realize the power they wield, and will wield it on their own selfish whims. Critics lament that while this may have been for a greater good what happens when there’s mobilizing for lesser reasons? When they want Powerade instead of Gatorade? First class seats instead of coach? Will they simply take their footballs and go home?
This fear of self-centered millennials now stealing away all the power is laughable though, because we willingly gave them all the power a long time ago. We have inextricably wrapped college athletics and education like two vines forever knotted together. We have insisted these athletes are not labor, they’re students. So there will be no salary, the scholarship is the payment. And that means they should take advantage of the opportunity as a student, get an education, and be part of the campus ecosystem.
But when these students then engage their voices alongside the chemistry department or the debate team, we shudder, because their voices are so much louder than their peers. Of course they are. Because we don’t pack 70,000 people in to watch Mizzou/Florida debate. We don’t have millions of dollars riding on the performance of the theater department’s Shakespeare series.
We have watched Mizzou to break from its generations-old ties to the Big 8/Big 12 and hop to the SEC. We allowed the disintegration of the Border War with Kansas. We sit idly by as the Tigers play games on holidays and during finals weeks, the tennis team traveling to Georgia for a conference match, all in the name of dollars.
Because there’s money to be made in sports, and even more money to be had in the new conference, and capitalism suggests you squeeze every last buck out of it you can. The windfall also helps out the university in myriad ways. The millions that flood in from the SEC Network and big-time bowl ties fund programs and coaches and professors and the rest of the school.
The math club isn’t bringing in $31 million per year (as the football and basketball team did). The nation doesn’t wait to see where the selection committee sends the student newspaper. There are no lines put up in Vegas on the Mizzou/Tennessee student government summit. We consciously accept the athletes are more important.
Maybe Wolfe is never forced to resign unless the football team steps in and pushes it forward with $31 million of girth. But what do we expect? The most financially important students on campus have the loudest voice. The same way Bono’s call for third-world aid carries more influence than Joey Bonano, the 7-11 clerk in Shreveport. We seem okay that college sports is big business. Well this is the price of doing business.
Why does the football team have more influence than anyone else on campus? Because we gave it to them awhile ago. And the only shock is the nation – athletes and fans – never realized it happened.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.