Athletes wield high degree of influence

Published 10:25 am Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Need proof that athletics — football in particular — has outsize influence at colleges and universities?

The president of the University of Missouri system resigned Monday amid protests over racist incidents on campus. But the protests of students didn’t lead to his resignation. That only came after some Missouri football players threatened to boycott the season over Tim Wolfe’s handling of these incidents.

While we don’t begrudge the football players’ use of the power they obviously wield, it’s disturbing that any college athlete has that sort of power at an institution of higher learning. It’s not really the football players who have the power but the money that the football program brings in.

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Did Wolfe need to go? Probably, but it took the fear of losing precious athletic dollars that sent him packing. It’s doubtful that the threat of boycott from the Art Department would lead to the resignation of a college president.

But look at what was at stake with the football strike: Missouri would have been liable for a $1 million payment to BYU, the school it is scheduled to play Saturday. Without the 32 football players who threatened to strike, that game would have been canceled. Football brings in millions to the university annually, and Wolfe was smart enough to not put that kind of money in jeopardy.

The incident underscores the best and worst about college athletics. On one hand, the student-athletes were brave to use their political weight to bring about change, even if it meant jeopardizing their college — or pro — careers. Who wouldn’t admire that sort of courage?

But it also shows just how beholden universities are to athletics, especially football. That should concern us all. Universities are there to educate students, some of whom happen to play sports. They do not exist as minor league football facilities that also offer classes. The priorities are wrong, and if nothing else, Wolfe’s resignation should wake us up to that reality.