Commentary: Mizzou Football And The Power Of The Players

Nov 18, 2015
Originally published on November 18, 2015 11:39 am

It's accepted that the president of the University of Missouri stepped down in a racial dispute only when the football team threatened not to play a game. The players showed us again — surprise, surprise — how powerful is football, and let's throw in basketball, too, throughout our bastions of higher education.

It would have cost old Mizzou a million-dollar penalty had it forfeited. It would have cost the players next to nothing, because the NCAA rules they must be amateurs and risk serious injury for the love of the game. Ironically, for once, having nothing to gain actually strengthened the players' hand.

The particular racially insensitive issues at Missouri and those that've produced protests at other colleges have nothing to do with sport, but, on the other hand, it's worth noting well over half of the football players who bring in the big money in the big-time conferences are African-American. The percentage of minority basketball players is even higher.

Click the audio for Frank Deford's full commentary on this issue.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are also following many ongoing stories here in the United States, including this, the aftermath of the events at the University of Missouri, where the football team joined a student protest over racial bigotry on campus and brought some leverage a couple of Saturdays ago because they threatened not to play unless the school president resigned. And the school president resigned. Commentator Frank Deford sees this as a reminder about that awkward meeting point of sports and race in higher education.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: The players showed us again - surprise, surprise - how powerful is football - and let's throw in basketball, too - throughout our bastions of higher education. It would've cost old Mizzou a million-dollar penalty had it forfeited. It would've cost the players next to nothing because the NCAA rules that they must be amateurs and risk serious injury for the love of the game. Ironically, for once, having nothing to gain actually strengthened the players' hand. The particular racially insensitive issues at Missouri and those that have produced protests at other colleges have nothing to do with sport. But on the other hand, it's worth noting that well over half of the football players who bring in the big money in the big-time conferences are African-American. The percentage of minority basketball players is even higher. By comparison, less than 3 percent of all these undergraduate bodies are made up of black males. You can see this yourself by watching any game on television, where you'll notice how striking it is that almost all the student-athletes are one race and all the student spectators are another. Or tune in "Game Day," the ESPN college football show, wherein white students loom in the background, many of whom behaving like idiots. An African-American friend once told me that he was so proud that he'd never once seen a single foolish black student with his body painted in school colors. Anyway, in the Show-Me State, the amateur football team got rid of the president and played the game for free, allowing alma mater to make millions more from its Southeastern Conference TV money and other football honey pots. But what then, not just Missouri but at all those big schools? Once the games are over, do those student cheerers care anything for the student entertainers? Are the players really accepted, or are they just hired hands, even if they're hired for nothing? It's always said that sport brings us together, but if the athletes go one way and their classmates another, that's just a canard, isn't it? No, what Missouri proves again is that college sports is really just about power. This rare time it was the players who were able to use it, but so long as lots of African-Americans are brought on campus, mostly just to stock the revenue teams, then, I'm sorry. But there's always going to be bad racial feelings at our colleges.

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford who joins us here most Wednesdays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.