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College athletes are showing they have the power

In the midst of civil unrest, a younger generation is finding its voice

Revenue-producing African American college athletes are recognizing their power and finding their voice, and that is a game-changer.

A few examples:

On Thursday, key members of the Florida State University football team threatened to boycott. They asserted that as they mourned the police killing of George Floyd, their head coach, Mike Norvell, lied in the press about his outreach to them. He said he had individual conversations with each of his players. The players, however, maintained that he had simply sent out a “generated” text to them, and they viewed his statements to the contrary as an affront to the deep pain they and millions of other Americans are suffering as the nation’s original sin of racism is laid bare in the streets with regularity. The players’ stand prompted a retraction and apology from their coach and led to a team meeting at which players and coaches committed, as a group, to: 1) raise funds to assist African Americans in affording college; 2) raise funds specifically to help children in Tallahassee, Florida, where FSU is located; and 3) register to vote.

On Wednesday, the University of Missouri football team marched en masse to a local courthouse. There, they kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor Floyd, who died as a police officer kneeled on his neck for that length of time. Their head coach Eliah Drinkwitz, as well as other university officials, joined them, but the players led. Sixty-two of the players then registered to vote.

In the fall of 2015, that same Missouri football team, although with different players, protested against long-simmering racial tensions on campus. The team resolved that it would not compete until then-state university system president Tim Wolfe resigned, and within several days, he did. Had he not, the boycott of the following Saturday’s game would have reportedly cost the university more than $1 million. Wolfe’s fate was sealed as soon as the players decided to act.

That is power.

As is a football-crazy state’s university team marching through town in unity to register to vote.

As is refusing to participate in your sport when you believe your coach has been dishonest on an issue of race that cuts to your core.

Collegiate athletics generate more than $10 billion a year, and that revenue is largely driven by football and basketball student-athletes who are disproportionately African American and who do not receive a dime in salary. They are pawns in a game that profits others handsomely off their toil.

True, those on scholarship receive the cost of their education, but it is an education heavily burdened (see the otherworldly time commitments required in high-level collegiate athletics) and often compromised (see any number of academic scandals involving athletic departments over the past several years). And sure, the most successful college football and basketball players stand to make millions one day as professional athletes, but they are only a select few, and risks of endangering that potential earning power lurk throughout their college careers. Injury is always a threat, of course. But so is stepping out of line – protesting, speaking freely, following one’s conscience. Indeed, after the Missouri football team boycotted racial injustice on campus, Missouri state legislators proposed legislation that would strip such athletes of their scholarships. Fortunately, the legislation failed. But legislation aside, how do you think professional sports teams view the prospect of an elite college athlete engaging in controversial public protests against racial injustice? I’d say not well. Do you think such college athletes’ draft stock will increase or decrease? I’ll let you answer.

Revenue-producing college athletes propel big-time college sports, making money for others while they try to avoid pitfalls that will prevent them from one day making money for themselves. This incentivizes complacency, and it is understandable. But African American college athletes are beginning to say, pardon the phrase, “F[udge] it.” They want a better America – an America that values them as much as it values their white teammates – and they will not be muzzled. They are speaking truth to power, and that power is real. If they act collectively and strategically, they have the potential to shut down the entire collegiate athletic system. And if our society does not find a way to free itself from stifling oppression and a culture of racial subjugation, perhaps they will.

N. Jeremi Duru is a sports law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.