A dose of reality for the Missouri legislators who went off half-cocked this week: You have no control over anything that the University of Missouri football team decides to protest, boycott or support on campus. Nor do you have a say in virtually any other aspect of their time on campus.
Which is not necessarily a good thing for these young men or any college athlete. Not if legislators ever wanted to honor to the term student-athlete. Not if they ever cared enough to ensure that Mizzou football players’ success post-graduation is respected as much as their brawn.
The daffy bill at the center of the controversy was withdrawn Wednesday, with its sponsor, Rep. Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, saying he wants continued debate.
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OK. Let’s have some conversations worth having about college athletes — the ones about the rigor of academic coursework, measuring grades, restrictive transfer rules for eligibility and their role in generating millions of dollars for athletic departments.
The MU athletic department, as with many of the larger collegiate systems, is its own ship. In 2014, it rolled along with nearly $84 million in operating revenue, not controlled by or overseen by taxpayers. It is far from having to answer the whims of state politicos.
How’d that message get missed in Jefferson City?
The now deep-sixed HB 1743 threatened to yank scholarships for any player who dares to step out of line if the player “calls, incites, supports or participates in any strike or concerted refusal to play a scheduled game.”
All of this, of course, dates back to November’s student protests about the racial climate on campus and the overpublicized hunger strike of one grad student. In solidarity, members of the football team threatened to boycott the upcoming game. Then-coach Gary Pinkel supported his team.
But the eventual departure of the chancellor and the university system president was out of the chutes long before about 30 Mizzou team members — many of whom are black — threw in. The genesis of the turmoil was a litany of complaints from graduate students and long-simmering faculty dissent.
The ensuing national attention was embarrassing for many, apparently including Brattin and his co-sponsor, Rep. Kurt Bahr of O’Fallon.
In interviews this week, Bahr talked of contracts athletes have with the university, speaking as if these are business arrangements. Players sign national letters of intent, agreements in NCAA terms. It’s part of the dance around no pay for student-athletes, keeping them eligible as amateurs, despite the fact that their performance is paramount to the finances of the athletic department.
The Drake Group, a nonprofit critic of the NCAA, has long argued for more accountability toward academic integrity in collegiate sports. Drake is based at the University of New Haven College of Business in Connecticut.
With a new Mizzou football coach just hired, timing is perfect for broader conversations. Start with: How will academics be fairly measured as part of Barry Odom’s $1.5 million annual incentive offer?
The Mizzou football team, in early December, was honored by the American Football Coaches Association for being one of 15 institutions that graduated at least 90 percent of its student-athletes since 2008. Mizzou, Vanderbilt and South Carolina were the only SEC programs noted.
But how academics are measured is an ongoing debate. The NCAA’s graduation success rate is often used, and criticized.
In October, Drake issued a paper accusing the NCAA academic measures of often being “public relations ‘smokescreens,’ hiding widespread exploitation of academically underprepared athletes and academic fraud by institutions chasing financial success in Division I athletics.” They allege that athletes have ceased to be compared to their non-athlete peers.
Even more pertinent to this week, in June, Drake issued a position paper on the rights of college athletes, with 22 recommendations. A major point was how differently recipients of athletic scholarships are controlled, not protected and penalized compared to scholarships for academics or the arts.
Athletes can lose eligibility to play for a year if they dare to transfer schools, as athletic departments fear the loss of those recruitment dollars and possibly losing a player to a rival team. Imagine such a thing for a non-athlete student, say on a music scholarship.
The paper found that in many ways, universities “treat athletes as a labor force instead of as students seeking an education while also playing sports.” That summary fits this season’s angst, with people fearing the power of the players to undermine the financial wins that come with broadcasting rights and ticket sales.
Brattin told USA Today: “The football team is a sports organization, not a political activist organization.”
Oh, that’s rich. He might as well have said: “I want those black boys out in the field, working those muscles.”
Surely, neither Brattin or Bahr intended the racial overtones of the bill, or in their subsequent comments. But it was glaring to others, and that was a huge part of the resentment.
The crux of that gaffe was that the legislators, like a lot of us, have bought into valuing these young people as players first and as students second, if at all.