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Sam Mellinger: Why the last few days at Mizzou have college administrators everywhere scared

Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel speaks Monday during a press conference at the Mizzou Athletic Training Facility.
Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel speaks Monday during a press conference at the Mizzou Athletic Training Facility. The Associated Press

The intention, presumably, was to show strength and solidarity.

On the surface, Missouri’s two most powerful athletics officials did that in a press conference Monday in Columbia. Gary Pinkel, the football coach, talked of supporting his players. Mack Rhoades, the athletics director, talked of using an extraordinary last few days to improve life on campus.

But underneath all of that is a layer of fear, which is an awkward look for those used to power. The fear is in Columbia at the state’s flagship university, the same as it is growing at Kansas and Kansas State and every other school across the country in the billion-dollar business of major college sports.

This is a major moment. College sports, or at least the power dynamics within college sports, will never be quite the same. Coaches and administrators can be divided into two categories: those who adjust the way they deal with athletes, and those who will struggle and even lose their jobs because they refuse.

That’s the general sentiment from several college administrators and coaches who spoke for this column with the understanding their names would not be used.

From Washington to Miami, and from Maine to Hawaii, college athletes are watching the heartland and seeing undeniable proof of the power they hold. A show of unity and strength from Mizzou’s football players essentially forced Pinkel, the $4 million-per-year coach and most influential man on campus, to back their boycott, which ended when the University of Missouri system president and the Columbia campus chancellor resigned two days later.

Two days.

In the context of university bureaucracy, that is like the flavor life of a piece of Dubble Bubble.

In two days, a group of college football players affected the change – largely symbolic, it should be noted, but still change – that student protests, faculty complaints and a grown man starving himself could not.

Those in positions of power do not know how to react in the face of fear. Some of them freeze. It can be a terrifying experience to reach a place of decision-making, personnel management and seven-figure salaries, and then feel the ladder you used to make that climb shake.

This is what it’s like to be an administrator or a coach at a major university right now.

The money generated by college sports has long given power to coaches, school administrators, chancellors and presidents, and in particular television network executives. But the events at Mizzou these last few days are clear proof that with the right cause, motivation and unity, the real power rests with the athletes.

The purpose of this column is not to tell you what to think of the resignations of university system president Tim Wolfe or chancellor Bowen Loftin, or anything about racism on college campuses or modern America. Those worthwhile discussions are being had in many places among many passionate people.

The intent of this column is to tell you that all of this – the power of sports, the power of football players standing together for a cause and the swift pace in which this happened – has many college administrators and coaches freaked out.

Because it’s the athletes who make it all work or not, and a college football team essentially tumbling a university’s power structure is the clearest proof yet of the power they hold. Careers, donations, school pride and often the viability of local businesses all depend on college athletes. They have enormous influence.

This has long been a sleeping giant, and the alarm is now going off.

As one high-ranking administrator put it, the power that college athletes hold in threatening boycotts of games that generate millions of dollars at a time is akin to a hammer. It can be used productively, as in the building of a house. Or it can be used destructively, as in tearing something down.

Four years ago, Ohio State president Gordon Gee said of football coach Jim Tressel, “I just hope he doesn’t fire me.” Now it’s the players who can influence whether powerful men keep their jobs.

In this specific instance at MU, the football players used their platform and influence to support a cause that cannot be tagged with selfish motives. Addressing racism – and there are other issues at play here, but racism is the most important and talked about – is a noble goal.

But what about the next cause?

That’s where the fear comes in. The structure of college sports has by definition kept the power away from athletes, with few exceptions. Boycotts have been more whispers and rumors. Perhaps most famously, the 1991 UNLV basketball team has been said to have been close to boycotting or otherwise protesting the NCAA championship game.

Rhoades and Pinkel used the phrase “extraordinary circumstances” over and over Monday, and downplayed this week’s events as any sort of precedent. But that is out of their hands now, because as college athletes across the country see their power helping shake the leadership structure in Missouri, it stands to reason this is closer to the beginning than the end.

This is how it has always worked in America. Those with power use it.

The most obvious issue for college athletes to boycott over is compensation. The trend has long been going in that direction, particularly with the recent full cost of attendance allowances. In the wake of what happened in Columbia, those discussions will now be had in a much different context.

If college athletes are going to further use their influence, they should use their power wisely. Speaking out against racism, with no tangible or financial self-interest, was always going to be applauded or at least condoned by most. If this is indeed the beginning of college athletes using their considerable power, they will face harder sells.

But in the meantime, smart administrators and coaches will be changing the way they deal with athletes, and putting in the time to build and strengthen relationships to help manage through hard times.

Because they don’t know who or where will be next, only that there will be a who and where. The rules are changing. The huge money generated by college sports has long made this day inevitable. The winners will be the ones who best manage it.

Sam Mellinger is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. He can be contacted at 816-234-4365, or @mellinger on Twitter.