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Patrick Hruby

Esquire's Toughest 2015: The University of Missouri Football Team

NCAA athletes generate huge sums for universities and get very little in return. But when they organize, they can become a seriously powerful voice.
By Patrick Hruby | Esquire | December 2015


An old business adage holds that if you owe the bank $1,000, they own you—but if you owe a million dollars, you own the bank. When it comes to big-time college football, the same rough logic applies: so long as athletes are atomized, disempowered and stripped of their basic economic rights through National Collegiate Athletic Association amateurism, they are essentially owned by their schools; but if and when those same players unite to withhold their labor—thereby threatening the billions in revenue that makes Nick Saban's salary and athletic director beach houses and College Gameday Powered by the Home Depot™ possible—then they not only can own their schools, but also the whole system that currently exploits them.

Question is, do a bunch of 18-to-22-year-olds have the guts to do so?

They just might. In November, members of the University of Missouri football team vowed not to play until school president Tim Wolfe resigned. Other students already had been calling for Wolfe's ouster, protesting the school's handling of complaints about racism. But within 48 hours of the football team threatening to boycott a single game—potentially costing Missouri's athletic department $1 million or more—Wolfe was gone.

Team members said they were taking a stand for racial justice; in particular, they were inspired by African-American Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler, who was on a hunger strike. But imagine if college football players collective felt the same way about economic injustice, about a college sports setup that NCAA architect Walter Byers once dubbed a "neo-plantation"—a system that limits athlete compensation to scholarships and puny cost-of-living stipends, all while the average assistant football coaching salary in the Southeastern Conference is roughly $450,000 and the NCAA's well-paid lawyers spend millions in federal antitrust court fighting to ensure that campus athletes remain second-class citizens, separate and unequally protected by the Sherman Act. Imagine if the two teams in the College Football Playoff championship game joined hands, walked to 50-yard-line, sat down on the turf and said no. We won't play. Not unless you allow us to be paid.

Here's what would happen: sponsors and advertisers would get on the phone with ESPN president John Skipper; Skipper would get on the phone with NCAA president Mark Emmert and various other college sports power brokers; everyone would look at the spreadsheets; and within a week, LSU's All-American running back Leonard Fournette would be happily fielding endorsement offers from Subway and Nike.

Believe it or not, something like this almost has happened already. In 1987, Oklahoma football stars Brian Bosworth and Spencer Tillman considered delaying the start of a game against Nebraska to draw attention to athletes' rights; in the 1990s, players from a number of major college basketball programs planned to stage a sit-down protest on the opening day of March Madness. Both plots fizzled. Of course they did. On the field, college football players have incredible courage—you try smashing your head against a concrete wall, and then doing it 30 more times. Off the field, athletes are more likely to keep their collective heads down. After all, withholding football means risking revoked scholarships, bad press, fan outrage, NFL blackballing and basically losing what little piece of the pie you've managed to carve out. Besides, it's not as though players can count on public or government support: a 2014 Washington Post poll found that two-thirds of Americans oppose paying college athletes, and earlier this year the National Labor Relations Board kiboshed a unionization bid by Northwestern University football players just because, offering neither an apology nor a rational legal explanation.

If all of this sounds a bit like contemporary America—a small group of wealthy, powerful overseers, furiously rigging the deck against everyday workers, all while telling said workers they're morally suspect for wanting different or more—well, that's what made the Missouri football team's stand so inspiring, and an object lesson for the rest of us. It takes brains to realize your own dormant power, and balls to exercise it. Not just the oblong kind.

Read the original article at Esquire.com