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Miller: What Mizzou taught us about college athletes and collective bargaining

The short-lived but influential work stoppage by the University of Missouri’s football players early last week affirmed, among other things, the power of sports not only on college campuses but also in American society.

It showed us on a prominent and public stage that college athletes are able and willing to quickly effect change at their institutions. If the impact of the football players’ strike, which jeopardized the Tigers’ Saturday game against BYU, is still unclear, ask yourself: Would I have known about the allegedly racially-motivated incidents at Mizzou if the football team wasn’t involved? Would the national media have swarmed to Columbia like they did? Would I have known about Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike or the demands of Concerned Student 1950?

For me, the answer is no. Had this tweet not been sent out last Saturday night or had Tigers’ head coach Gary Pinkel not announced he was “behind (his) players,” I would’ve likely remained totally ignorant of the entire situation or, at the very least, not followed it as closely as I did. I suspect that my experience mirrors that of many others, and while this may be viewed as sad commentary on our society (that we only pay attention to perceived injustice when sports are involved), it is encouraging to confirm what many already knew: College athletes have real power. And now we know they’re not afraid to use it.

The question then becomes: When, how and in what circumstances will they use that power in the future? In particular, will they unite to gain the full set of economic rights denied to them by their athletics departments and the NCAA? Here are the other key takeaways from Mizzou:

A union is not necessary for collective action to be effective.

This summer, the NLRB cowardly refused to decide whether Northwestern’s football players were employees or not, thus prohibiting the team from possibly unionizing (the players voted, but the results are now sealed).

Union status would’ve afforded the athletes at Northwestern, and potentially other FBS private schools like Stanford, full collective bargaining rights with their institution, thereby forcing their athletics departments to negotiate in good faith over working (practice and competition) conditions, healthcare coverage and more. Though some labor economists, most notably Stanford’s own Roger Noll, are skeptical about the long-term effectiveness of a college players union, the legal protections for unionized employees during strikes or work stoppages would certainly be of no harm to college athletes.

The football players at Missouri, however, proved that the lack of union status does not necessarily render collective action any less successful. Remember, student groups had been clamoring for UM President Tim Wolfe’s removal for weeks, and yet it took less than 48 hours for Wolfe to resign after the group of Missouri players proclaimed it would not practice or play until he was gone. The players acted not as members of a recognized union but banded together informally, pooling the leverage (the ability to provide or withhold athletic services) of each individual player to achieve their common goal — and did so in less than two days. If you ask me, that’s a fairly effective and efficient protest.

Money is a powerful motivator, and revenue sport athletes hold the purse strings.

Had Missouri been forced to cancel/forfeit its contest against BYU, the school would’ve been contractually obligated to pay the Cougars $1 million within thirty days of the game. The loss for Mizzou, however, would’ve been far greater than that. Revenue from gate receipts, concessions, parking and more importantly from “public relations, radio and television broadcasts” would all have been wiped out if the players’ strike had lasted through the weekend.

Because the game was played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City (a venue that Missouri likely had to rent), there could have been additional economic consequences for the school in the event of cancellation. And even the contract admits this may not be the total extent of the opportunity costs, which “would be difficult or impossible to calculate.” What’s not impossible to calculate is Tim Wolfe’s base salary, which was about $450,000. You do the math.

If every Power 5 conference football team decided to strike for one — just one — weekend, the losses would likely number in the tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions. And once athletic departments start to feel that burn, I guarantee they’ll be groveling to meet the athletes’ demands.

 

Lately, Cameron Miller has been thinking about collective bargaining with Winston Shi by no longer writing sports columns for the Daily until he gets paid more. Tell him how crazy his idea is by sending him an email at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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