Will more college athletes take on the establishment

Published 10:14 am Thursday, November 12, 2015

College athletes have more power than ever before, almost everyone can agree on that. What is up for debate is whether that will lead to overdue change, or whether it will throw programs into turmoil.

Protests have been rare during the college athletes’ eight-decades and counting campaign for a bigger piece of the pie — and successful protests have been rarer still.

But the winds of change buffeting the power structure of college sports are stronger than at any time since the mini-revolts of the late 1960s and early ‘70s that focused largely on civil rights. More and more, today’s athletes are showing a similar willingness to test the limits of their power through protests, organizing efforts and smart use of social media.

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Even before a threatened strike by Missouri football players helped lead to the resignation of the school’s president, student athletes were showing their strength off the field.

Two years ago, Grambling State’s football team went public with their complaints over the sorry state of the facilities by forfeiting a game against Jackson State. Last March, Oklahoma’s football team walked out of spring practice in response to a video showing white fraternity members singing racial slurs. In June, a barrage of tweets by former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic (“WHEN @coachbeckman is fired,” one tweet began, “you’ll hear plenty more stories …”) sparked the investigation that actually did get coach Tim Beckman fired three months later.

“People said this before, but I feel like college sports is in very dangerous territory right now,” said Gary Barnett, a former head coach at Northwestern and Colorado now a radio analyst for Sports USA network. “The schools and athletic departments have plenty of problems as it is; add this battle over athletes’ rights to the health issues, like concussions, that are already on the table, and it looks tough to continue on the track we’re on. …

“My greatest fear is what will happen if the tail is wagging the dog,” Barnett added. “But that’s what it feels like from a distance.”

Yet the same image that threatens some in the status quo looks like a positive from the other side of the prism. They say it’s no coincidence athletes are flexing their vocal muscles at the same time a steady stream of challenges to the authority of the NCAA. Major conferences are moving through the courts and federal agencies seeking to expand athletes’ rights and how they’re compensated.

“I think they have a real sense now of the power they can wield,” said Ramogi Huma, the former UCLA linebacker and executive director of the National College Players Association (NCPA), which led the unsuccessful fight to organize football players at Northwestern. “What happened at Missouri is that athletes who train and prepare and love to play demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice to advance a larger cause. In their case, it was to fight against racism.

“Now the question becomes will players prove willing to do the same to address unjust NCAA rules? To fight for better medical coverage? Or more just compensation? … The seeds have been planted before,” he added. “We’ll see if they bear fruit this time around.”