What Happens If the College Sports Mu$ic Stops?

March Madness is right around the corner. Imagine the chaos if the student-athletes decided not to play with a sit-in?
March Madness is right around the corner. Imagine the chaos if the student-athletes decided not to play with a sit-in?

By Wendell Barnhouse

Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King inspired the Civil Rights movement through sit-ins and marches. Those peaceful protests helped launch the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There are subtle indications bubbling below the surface that a similar historic movement is needed in college sports. While the conferences, networks, commissioners and coaches continue to make bank – big bank – student-athletes, particularly those in football and men’s basketball, earn piggy bank small change.

Considering how much faster the world spins (figuratively) than it did in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there is a chance there will be a galvanizing event sooner rather than later.

We’re between the recently-completed College Football Playoff and the National Collegiate Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament. Both events have television contracts in the billions. Coaches at the top of both sports have contracts worth $5-$7 million. The NCAA is financed by its March Madness television contract.

NCAA President Mark Emmert earns $1.7 million per year. The commissioners of the five power conferences who run the CFP have seen salary increases of 379 percent over the last decade. Their yearly salaries range from $2 million to $3.4 million.

“The current model will only be ‘broken’ for as long as the athletes themselves allow it to remain that way,” former University of California and National Football League linebacker Scott Fujita told the Washington Post. “There’s no governing body that’s going to fix it. It must be the players. And as more players realize the power they can wield, and once they can organize around the common purpose of the change they seek, that’s when things will begin to shift.”

But what if the players in the NCAA championship game in Houston on April 4 walk out for the opening tip, watch the ball tossed… and then walk back to the benches to sit for 30 minutes? What if the Alabama and Clemson players had decided to stay in their locker rooms for an extra 15 minutes at halftime? A unified, nationally-televised work stoppage would draw attention. Think this is a crazy notion?

“But the fact is – and it probably will be in the sport of men’s basketball – there will be a day in the future when the popcorn is popped, the TV cameras are there, the fans are in the stands and the team decides they’re not going to play. Mark my words. We will see that in the years ahead. We saw some of it for other reasons in the ’70s, but I really believe that we aren’t finished with the compensation issue or with the employee-vs.- student issue. The tension in the system isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”

Those were the words of Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby. He made those remarks during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in September. Bowlsby’s prediction didn’t get much attention because it came in the first month of the college football season in front of an audience who didn’t understand the potential impact if Bowlsby’s vision comes true.

There is power that is evident but not yet harnessed. That power is the student-athletes’ ability to remove themselves from the competition equation by boycotting games. The athletic contests are the engine of a billion-dollar industry. But the student-athletes – the fuel for that engine – receive pennies on the dollar.

Two examples of the influence student-athletes have when organized:

• In October 2013, Grambling State University’s football players boycotted two days of practice and forfeited a game with Jackson State University. The players’ complaints came after popular coach Doug Williams was dismissed and also included substandard facilities, unhealthy conditions and long bus rides. The school’s funding, which like many other historically black universities lags far behind larger schools, had been slashed thanks to the Louisiana legislature.

• Two years later, University of Missouri football players – led by nearly 50 African-American members – announced they were boycotting practice. The decision was made in support of student protests, including one student’s hunger strike, about how African-American students on campus were treated. With the threat of a forfeit that would cost the school $1 million, the football team’s protest lasted about 48 hours and ended with the resignation of the school president and chancellor.

(The Grambling State boycott’s impact was lessened by the fact it occurred at an HBU and didn’t involve the cancellation of a televised game. The Missouri boycott had more impact but the news was quickly swallowed by the coverage of how the media was treated during Missouri students’ subsequent protests plus the football coach’s resignation a few days later.)

There are numerous tales, all with fuzzy, unconfirmed facts, that University of Nevada-Las Vegas players planned to boycott the 1991 NCAA championship game. The Runnin’ Rebels were the defending champs, their beloved coach Jerry Tarkanian had been battling the NCAA in court for over two decades, and they were an undefeated power house favored to win back-to-back titles. Duke’s upset of UNLV in the semifinals ended any chance of a prime-time protest and no one involved has verified if a plan existed.

But consider this from a Sports On Earth story published on April 8, 2013:

“UNLV guard Greg Anthony, who was financially supporting his cancer-stricken mother and hemophiliac sister, had founded a lucrative T-shirt printing company. The NCAA told Anthony he couldn’t keep his basketball scholarship and operate his own business. Amateurism violation. Anthony, a summertime Congressional intern who was double-majoring in business and political science, gave up his scholarship, worth roughly $12,000. The NCAA subsequently ruled he still couldn’t operate his own business, because – in theory – a booster could funnel money into the enterprise, another amateurism no-no.”

Anthony was the senior point guard and unquestioned leader of the Runnin’ Rebels. You don’t think he would have been angry enough to organize a protest/boycott?

Those who run college sports trumpet recent increased and improved benefits for student-athletes. Sure, they now get unlimited meals and have been granted cost-of-attendance stipends worth around $5,000.

But the disconnect is obvious.

During the IMG Intercollegiate Athletic Forum in December, North Carolina State University athletic director Debbie Yow voiced a concern about cost-of-attendance stipends.

“You try to teach student-athletes about financial literacy, but know you failed when you see them on their new hover board,” she said.

Yow makes $690,000. When she left her previous job as the University of Maryland’s athletic director, the athletic department was $83 million in debt; that eventually led to the school cutting seven men’s and women’s sports.

Yow’s comment was followed by this comment from University of Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, who doubled down on the idea of a frivolous use of COA stipends by saying the money is used on “tattoos and rims.” Battle, who makes $620,000 a year, failed to note the racial implications when he later explained his comment was a “frivolous statement that was meant to be cute.”

The commissioners who tell us that providing more money (in other words, paying) student-athletes won’t work are the same people who decided it was a good idea to play College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve. The ratings tanked and ESPN had to pay $20 million in “make goods” to advertisers.

Who do you trust? Not those folks.

Currently, the discontent among the “workers” has yet to foment into an organized revolution. When student-athletes realize they have power when they present a unified front, don’t be surprised if your national championship game is interrupted by a boycott.