The shock waves reverberating out of the University of Missouri on Monday were felt nationwide. Look out: Aftershocks are likely, and sometimes they’re larger.

Not since the “Deaf President Now” days in 1988 at Gallaudet University has a moment of cultural outrage resulted so quickly in a college leader’s resignation, much less an unprecedented two. One would have to go back even earlier, to campus protests across the country in the mid-1980s over university investments in South African businesses and funds, to identify campus uprisings with such potential for lasting change.

In the wake of the resignations of Tom Wolfe and R. Bowen Loftin as president and chancellor, respectively, of the University of Missouri System and its flagship campus, university leaders elsewhere might be asking, “Who’s next?”

It’s certainly the right question.

Universities around the country, including UH, are heavily dependent on big athletics programs for brand visibility and revenue. But as the Missouri protests show, athletes may wield more power in such programs than they previously realized. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

For those who haven’t been following the saga, this is it, in brief: In recent months, there have been a series of high-profile racial incidents that included the university’s black student body president being repeatedly called “nigger” on campus and a drunken white student unleashing a barrage of racial slurs against a group of black students rehearsing for a homecoming performance.

Wolfe and Loftin were criticized for inadequate responses to a racial climate at Mizzou that students of color and a growing number of students and staff overall found unacceptable.

A group of black students confronted Wolfe at a homecoming parade recently, and he barely acknowledged their presence. That prompted one of the protesters to begin a hunger strike Nov. 2, demanding that Wolfe step down.

Late Saturday, more than 30 members of the University of Missouri football team joined the effort, saying they wouldn’t play another down for Mizzou unless Wolfe resigned or was fired. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other leaders publicly urged the university to act. Thirty-six hours later, Wolfe was out, with Loftin following just a few hours later.

Why? In no small part, money. College football is big business for most campuses that have programs. It tends to be the revenue-generating sport that supports those with smaller fan bases. Its success can bring in millions in broadcast revenue, tickets and merchandise revenue and donor support, and dramatically increase brand visibility.

Missouri is due to play Brigham Young University on Saturday, and it faced the very real prospect of not being able to field a team, having to forfeit the game and all related revenue — and still being on the hook for a $1 million payment to BYU.

When the checks include that many zeros, they have a way of focusing the mind. And when they involve the very individuals responsible for generating the revenue behind those checks, this begins to sound very much like a successful labor strike.

Student Athletes As A Labor Force

The incident unfolded just three months after the National Labor Relations Board denied football players for Northwestern University the right to unionize. The NLRB had opened the door to possible unionization by recognizing those players as employees of the university last year, but then declined to allow them to organize — not because it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, but because the NLRB has no statutory authority over state-run colleges and universities, and allowing the practice at private Northwestern might destabilize the college football labor market.

State-run colleges and universities like Missouri are the very institutions now most vulnerable in the aftermath of the resignations of Wolfe and Loftin.

Have a look at this week’s Associated Press ranking of college football’s top 25 teams. All but Stanford, Notre Dame and Northwestern are public research universities, and they include some of the biggest names in intercollegiate athletics: Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. Campuses that are home to, in some cases, more than 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students and hundreds of highly visible student athletes.

A resurgence in populist youth-led protests in recent years — from the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon to the more recent Black Lives Matter movement — has ignited the imagination of many, proving what a force today’s 18- to 25-year-old demographic can be, unified by text messages and Instagram and expert at communicating across a breadth of mass media channels.

Combine those traits with strong interests in social and economic justice and civil rights and — among big sport college athletes — huge influence over a major revenue stream, and you have the potential emergence of entirely new power dynamics for some of our nation’s largest institutions of higher education.

Missouri is due to play Brigham Young University in football this Saturday, and it faced the prospect of not being able to field a team, having to forfeit the game and all related revenue — and still being on the hook for a $1 million payment to BYU.

Some may wonder whether that’s a good thing. But consider how responsibly that power was wielded in the Missouri situation. Students had been complaining for years, many say, about an unacceptable racial climate at a university that until Tuesday lacked a chief diversity officer. Incident after spectacular incident of racism (as well as high-profile examples of anti-Semitism and homophobia) went unpunished and inadequately noticed by university leaders.

Even a week-long hunger strike, launched by a graduate student who is also a Missouri alum, wasn’t making enough of a difference. It wasn’t until the football team and all its power sided with the protest that the university very loudly and quickly cried uncle.

As universities ask “who’s next,” it’s easy to think of settings across the country where disenchantment regarding campus dynamics, surrounding community issues or treatment of student athletes themselves might provoke the next flexing of big-sport muscle.

Earlier this year at the University of Hawaii, for instance, students led protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. One wonders how much more impact those protests might have had if the sizable number of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander student athletes had, in effect, gone on strike in support of the cause.

For purists who might object to describing student athletes in labor terms, consider that only this fall, colleges and universities nationwide began paying modest stipends — ranging from $1,500 to $6,000 per student, depending upon the sport and school — to student athletes for the first time in the history of the NCAA.

The funds are meant to provide for expenses beyond tuition, room and board for some of higher education’s most heavily scheduled and hardest working students. Compared to the revenue many of those student athletes make possible for the campuses where they study, they are a pittance.

That all of the above adds up to earthquake weather seems increasingly clear. University leaders ought to be paying close attention to the environmental dynamics of their own institutions, lest the next fault line break straight through their own stadiums and student unions.

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