Monday, November 9, 2015

The Missouri Precedent: Good and Bad

The President of the University of Missouri system, Timothy M. Wolfe, resigned today. He did so because, in response to his inaction against several bigoted incidents on campus, the entire football team -- black players and white players alike, over 100 young men -- went on strike, threatening to not practice or play again until Wolfe resigned.

In this endeavor, they were completely backed by head coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades, both of them white.

Wolfe could have made a spectacle of himself. Instead, he ended it quickly, quietly, and without denigrating the principled young men who chose to stand up for something they felt was important. If these incidents were as bad and as frequent as has been suggested, then I agree with them.

The question has been asked, "What if they were 9-0, instead of 4-5?" Indeed, after winning 4 of their 1st 5, they have dropped 4 straight, including to Georgia and Vanderbilt by a combined 13 points.

It's hard to say, but when you get an entire team to agree on a principle -- not one holdout -- it sounds to me like, to borrow a cliche, you can throw out the records.

But what if it wasn't Missouri? They've had some success recently. They've won the last 2 Southeastern Conference West Division titles. Before that, they'd won 3 Big 12 North Division titles in 4 years. That's 5 Division titles in the last 8 seasons -- although they didn't win the overall Conference title on any of those occasions.

But Missouri is not Alabama, or Texas, or Nebraska, or Ohio State, or Michigan, or Penn State, or USC, or Notre Dame.

Suppose, for a moment, that something had happened at the University of Alabama. In 1963, Governor George Wallace personally blocked the entrance to the registration building -- which, at the time, was also the school's main gymnasium -- to ensure that 2 black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, could not register, the legendary "stand in the schoolhouse door."

President John F. Kennedy and his Attorney General, also his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, sent RFK's deputy (and eventual successor), Nicholas Katzenbach, down to Tuscaloosa with federal marshals, and he told Wallace that he was in violation of federal law, and that instead of standing for white supremacy on national television, he would be arrested as a federal criminal for white supremacy on national TV.

Everybody remembers that Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. What they tend to forget is that he got out of that door, and obeyed the federal law. And the students walked in and registered.

It would be another 8 years before the football team at the University of Alabama would be integrated, which is a heck of a story in itself.

But today's State government is trying to put severe restrictions on voting rights. Can you imagine the entire Alabama football team going on strike if a black member of the team tried to register to vote, and was refused? Imagine him saying, "Sir, I have a regulation Alabama driver's license, my University of Alabama student identification card, and I play football, everybody in the State knows me." And still being denied.

Would the Crimson Tide revolt? How would the mostly-white, conservative, holdover-from-segregation (when they were Democrats) Republican establishment react to it?

And that's a progressive extension of the Missouri precedent. Now, imagine a more sinister one. I could have used my home-State Rutgers Scarlet Knights as an example here, but, let's face it, even if it had been as successful as Alabama over the last half-century, it's still the Northeast, not the South, and Rutgers -- even if they became wildly successful -- would never represent to New Jersey what the Crimson Tide does to the State of Alabama. They're in the Big 10 now, but they'll still never be Michigan or Ohio State, or even relative Big 10 newcomers Nebraska or Penn State. (And those aren't in Southern States, with all that that implies.)

I used to admire the Alabama football program, although it's harder now with the not-fully-scrupulous Nick Saban as head coach. I am not trying to mock the team, the school, or the State as a whole. I use Alabama only as a hypothetical example, because no state school, with the possible exception of the University of Texas, is more football-intensive.

The only such contender among private universities is Notre Dame, and bringing religion into it isn't something that I want to deal with right now. And, yes, I know, some Southerners consider football a "religion," and it's been joked that, in Alabama, an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in Bear Bryant.

Suppose that, one day, the starting quarterback at Alabama -- I don't know the current one's name, and it doesn't matter, and the race of this as-yet-hypothetical 'Bama QB shouldn't matter, either -- flunked an exam right before the Iron Bowl, their annual rivalry game with Auburn University.

Now, imagine that the rest of the team didn't think they could beat Auburn without him, and that they were going on strike unless the university president declared him eligible. And imagine that Saban backed them up on this.

No doubt, the NCAA would get involved, and so would the Southeastern Conference.

Let's also suppose that the game were at Auburn. If the players were on strike, the game wouldn't be played, and Auburn would lose the revenue from 87,000 people filling Jordan-Hare Stadium. (And, as the less successful program, they would need the money much more than 'Bama would.) And, for once in a truly nasty history, Alabama fans and Auburn fans were on the same side.

All because players are going on strike in support of a teammate who, by all rights, should be ineligible.

But would the people at large stand with the players? After all, the 'Bama fans don't want to forfeit to Auburn. And Auburn fans sure as hell don't want to hear, "We woulda beaten ya if (the quarterback) had played!" for the next 50 years. Simply saying, "How do you know?" wouldn't cover it.

And what if players went on strike to finally force the issue of paying college athletes?

That's an entire cannery worth of worms right there. If you think recruiting is vicious and/or corrupt now, imagine a thousand 17-year-old boys being courted like baseball free agents were in that first free agent draft of 1976. Somebody is going to be an analogue to Reggie Jackson. And, at the other end of the spectrum, somebody is going to turn out to be an analogue to poor, shredded-shouldered Wayne Garland.

Unintended consequences are a part of life. We think something's a great idea, and it may seem to be one in the short term. But in practical long-term fact... ?

I'm glad the Mizzou players stood up for their fellow students' right to not be treated like a second-class citizen, or, worse, as (to borrow George Orwell's term from his novel 1984) an un-person.

But this could become something no one can control. In the immortal words of Harrison Ford, I've got a bad feeling about this.

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