The resignation of the president and chancellor at the University of Missouri may prove to be a turning point in, of all things, college football. The status of college football players seemed to have hit rock bottom after a union seeking to represent players at Northwestern University suffered a surprising loss earlier this year before the National Labor Relations Board. The Labor Board declined jurisdiction to determine whether football players at the private university were entitled to bargain collectively even though the Regional Director of the Labor Board had explained convincingly that they were "employees" covered by federal labor law. The unionization movement appeared to be dead.
The resurrection began this past week. After months of racist incidents on the Mizzou campuses in Columbia and Kansas City including despicable slurs and harassment, protesting students seemed to have hit a dead end. The administration seemed to ignore them. Even a hunger strike by a graduate student did not move the university administration to acknowledge and seek to redress what was occurring. The protesters focused on Tim Wolfe, the president of the university system, and they demanded his resignation. He would not be moved, however.
Then the football team got involved. That fact alone is remarkable, but especially so at a member school of the Southeastern Conference where football is king and the players have real prospects to move up to the next level, the NFL. Led by its players of color and supported by its coach, Gary Pinkel, the team joined the protest movement, which had included faculty as well as students, by announcing it would not play its scheduled contest against BYU this weekend. The boycott potentially would cost the University of Missouri millions of dollars. While the protesters had worked long and hard since this summer to make their issues known, it was the addition of the football team that broke the impasse and led to the resignations of the men who had come to symbolize the resistance.
As a result of the threat of the football team, everything changed. These young athletes found that their collective action had significant political power. Employers everywhere in the country had learned the same lesson over the last century when their employees joined together in a common cause. Concerted activity empowered workers. That was especially the case when those employees who threatened to strike provided essential, and not easily replaceable, services to their employer. While football players at public universities are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, neither were farm workers who successfully organized and bargained collectively based only on their economic and political power. Football players may have learned the same lesson from the events at Mizzou.
There have been other university officials who, over the years, have expressed racist views. In the mid-1990s, for example, the president of Rutgers University, Dr. Francis Lawrence, explained to faculty of the university's Camden campus that the university had to pursue affirmative action because blacks were "genetically inferior." Protests did not lead to his resignation. Perhaps if the Rutgers football team had joined in objecting to the president's "misstatement," as he characterized it, maybe the outcome would have been different.
The captain of the Missouri football team, spokesperson for the team, explained the actions of his fellow players: "We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that: a game." Anyone who follows SEC football knows that is not quite true. It is more than just a game. It is much closer to a weekend religion and a source of great regional pride. Much as employers who have faced determined and cohesive labor unions, universities must recognize the new reality. They must listen to their students, their faculty, and now their football players.
Football players may not need to unionize if they exercise their political power wisely. Demanding more pay -- they already receive full scholarships, room, board and books -- does not seem a well-designed objective, at least initially. On the other hand, if they respond to the arbitrary treatment of players and others, they can have a significant impact. As members of the university community, football players can enhance equity and non-discrimination on campus and promote a safe environment for all students. All it would take is the threat of a strike.