Sports view: Sports overthrows its creator

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

Most of us are familiar with the economic impact of collegiate athletics.  After the recent incidents at the University of Missouri, we also know the political ramifications athletic teams can have.

University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe along with R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the flagship campus at Columbia, resigned last week after a series of protests over racial events on campus that were not addressed to the satisfaction of a number of students.  The issues at Missouri began on September 12 when the president of the Missouri Students Association claimed he was called a racial slur.  

Five weeks later, after several more racially related incidents and demonstrations, a group of black students calling themselves “Concerned Student 1950,” demanded Wolfe’s resignation.  

More statements and protests followed.  But the real action took place in a 72-hour period.  On November 7, as a sign of support for one of their fellow students who had begun a hunger strike, a group of more than 30 football players announced that they would not practice or play games until Wolfe either resigned or was terminated.   

The next day their coach, Gary Pinkel, took to twitter to proclaim his full support for the players.  Less than 24 hours later, Wolfe resigned.  Shortly thereafter, Loftin announced that he would transition into a new role on the Columbia campus at the end of the year.  

In essence, the Missouri football team was able to accomplish in three days what two months of demonstrations, demands for resignations, statements of non-support and a hunger strike had failed to achieve:  The overthrow of the university administration.   

But Mizzou football isn’t just any sports team.    According to USA Today, the football program generated $83 million in revenue last year.  And their timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  The boycott came a week before a home game against Brigham Young University (BYU).  If the boycott had continued, Missouri would have been liable for a $1 million payment to BYU, in addition to losing millions-of-dollars of revenue.   In the end, this wasn’t so much about Wolfe and Loftin doing the “right thing,” but about dollars and cents.  

If you have any doubt about that, substitute the girls’ volleyball team or the men’s golf team for the football team.  If the players on either team had threatened a boycott if Wolfe failed to resign, do you think he would be in the unemployment line today?      

Following the resignations, one of the football players issued a statement which said in part, “we just wanted to use our platform to take a stance for a fellow concerned student on an issue…”  Those comments suggest that the team’s actions were a one-off, unlikely to be repeated.  But other teams will undoubtedly take note of what the Tigers’ players accomplished.  What if they follow Missouri’s lead and threaten a boycott in an effort to achieve their goals, whether social, political or even to obtain additional benefits from their university?  Who will dare to stand in their way?   

It wasn’t just the inmates (football players) who were running the asylum (university).  Pinkel, who was admittedly between a rock and a hard place, chose to support his players over his bosses.  By doing so, he essentially committed an act of treason.  Prior to the game against BYU, which the emotional Tigers won with a fourth-quarter comeback, Pinkel announced that he had cancer and would resign at the end of the season.  Did his medical condition influence his decision to stand behind his players?  Only Pinkel knows.  But his actions, while courageous, no doubt jeopardized his long-term future with the university, along with his prospects for obtaining a head coaching position elsewhere.

Social activism on college campuses isn’t new, as anyone who lived through the ‘60’s and ‘70’s can attest.  And it continues today.  Institutions as diverse as Yale and Ithaca College are undergoing their own form of unrest.  But Missouri may be the first instance of a sports team using its economic power to bring down the administration.  

College administrators created the monster we know as revenue generating sports, a multi-billion dollar industry.  Now the debate about unions and compensating student-athletes has taken a new turn.  The monster knows it can call the shots.  With the Genie out of the bottle, don’t expect it to end with Missouri.    

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner.  He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com  and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.
 

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