Enough was enough. The television network was getting a spectacle, a shiny bauble with which to lure both eyeballs and advertisers. The school was getting a payday, a hefty holiday stocking stuffer. And the players? Nothing. Nothing but a few more weeks of practice, battered pads and helmets, bodies too, of running and hitting and aching, a draining coda to a long, tough season. All for the opportunity to play middling mid-December college football in cloudy Philadelphia, where the sideline palm trees were imported -- and the 22-degree temperatures were not.
"I still remember running out on the field," says former Syracuse linebacker David Meggyesy. "They had brought in the palms because we were playing against Miami. It was cold as hell, wind blowing, snow, and I’m thinking, 'God, those poor trees.'"
Like a frosted palm frond, Meggyesy felt out of his element. So did many of his teammates. In fact, when Syracuse first agreed to participate in the 1961 Liberty Bowl, a made-for-television matchup featuring star Orangemen runner Ernie Davis (at right) and gifted Miami quarterback George Mira, the linebacker's reaction was typical: since the coaches and administrators accepted the invitation, maybe they should play the game. Disgruntled, the Syracuse players held a special meeting. No coaches allowed. The assembled college athletes had more questions than answers. Why are we even playing in this game? What is it about? Who is ultimately benefiting? The seniors talked boycott. A decision was made. If the team had to play – and in a second-rate icebox bowl nobody had ever heard of, to boot -- the players should at least get something in return. Say, wristwatches. Nice ones. Like the nice wristwatches given out at the major bowls, the Orange and the Rose. And so, the team met with coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
We want watches, they said. Or else we won't play.
A half-century later, their message is more relevant than ever.
Monday night's BCS title game was many things: A 21-0 victory for Alabama; a vindication of Nick Saban's sweep-the-leg coaching style; an entirely unnecessary excuse to party on Bourbon Street. Mostly, though, the contest was a missed opportunity. A wasted chance to bring about change. To hit big-time college sports where they hurt. To strike a decisive blow against a bloated, corrupt, morally bankrupt and downright un-American system that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch has charitably likened to a modern-day plantation. And all it would have taken was players from Alabama and LSU to link arms, walk to the 50-yard line, sit down on the SuperDome turf and say the following:
We want fairness. We want a say. Or else we won't play.
The economic status quo in BCS-level college athletics -- management makes the rules and reaps the profits; labor has minimal rights, compensation and recompense -- is untenable. Deplorable. Hopeless, really, in the long run, given that the money involved keeps growing and the resulting inequity becomes more and more obvious. Two years ago, Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan -- a man who creates little value beyond capably filling an ugly yellow blazer -- earned a reported salary of $593,718.
Meanwhile, a skilled performer like LSU's Tyrann Mathieu -- whom people actually want to watch on television, and are willing to sit through endless advertisements to do so -- gets a scholarship worth a tenth of that amount. Oh, and if Mathieu tried to capitalize on his actual market value -- perhaps by selling T-shirts – he would be punished for both his entrepreneurial hustle and for violating the tenets of amateurism, the classic Greek philosophy of this pie is all mine, enjoy the crumbs, sucker.
But I digress.
Things fall apart. The NCAA as we know it cannot hold on indefinitely, any more than Hosni Mubarak could hold on in Egypt. Everyone knows this. Problem is, the system isn't falling apart fast enough. It's stubborn and entrenched. Which makes sense. After all, if you were a college sports powerbroker -- a conference commissioner, a university president, a megabucks coach -- why would you want anything to change? You make the money. You call the shots. In a neat bit of cognitive dissonance -- the same trick practiced by economic overlords everywhere, once known as the White Man's Burden -- you probably have convinced yourself that the great and noble cause of having college football and basketball players work for almost free as living, breathing brand marketing brochures is somehow righteous. We're doing this for education and the love of the game -- oh, wow, you want to give me a million bucks to wear this shoe company lapel pin? In short, you have no incentive to change, and every incentive to keep on keepin' on.
Case in point? Last October, NCAA president Mark Emmert (below, right) proposed giving college athletes an additional $2,000 cost-of-living stipend -- a pittance compared to the billions generated in March Madness television rights, but better than nothing. So what happened? Two months later, 125 member schools asked for an override, suspending the proposal. The upshot was clear: College sports will never become fairer unless they are forced to become fairer.
And the surest way to apply force is through an athlete strike.
Look, big-time college sports can often seem as intimidating and impregnable as the Death Star. But if the "Star Wars" saga taught us anything -- beyond the fact that George Lucas is to film directing what Tim Tebow is to football-throwing -- it's that even a planet-destroying space station has a pressure point. The NCAA's ventilation shaft is money. Television money, to be exact. The lifeblood of the entire dishonest edifice. Networks like Fox, CBS and ESPN are the system's sugar daddies, the phone call that never can be ignored. (NCAA basketball: because playing games on Wednesday nights is great for the study habits of our student-athletes!)
Now, network executives probably don't care about the essential wrongness of amateurism, any more than textile plants care about how plantations are run. They just need the final product. Cotton. Games. Programming. They need to fill hours, attract viewers, harvest and sell the resulting eyeballs to their sugar daddies, advertisers and cable providers. No compelling programming? No profits. Take away a big-money, big-ratings property like the March Madness or the BCS bowl games, and the networks are in a bind.
"Remember that [San Francisco] 49ers game this season where they lost electricity for half an hour?" Meggyesy says. "It screwed the whole television schedule up. And when you look at the whole structure of sports, it's all television-based. Now imagine if you just had all of your offensive linemen pull a sick out in the locker room for half an hour. Boom. Just do it. That's the ultimate lever of change. It rests with the athletes. These guys don't realize the power they have."
Indeed. Imagine if Big East basketball players suddenly refused to play next Monday night. Or if Alabama and LSU had intentionally delayed the start of national title game by two hours. Or if college athletes embarked on a rolling series of strikes, sudden and unpredictable, throwing the sports entertainment calendar into chaos. Imagine network executives taking angry calls from their sponsors and panicked calls from corporate accounting. Imagine those same executives placing stern calls to university athletic directors and presidents.
Fix this. Like, right now.
Of course, an athlete strike is hardly a new idea. Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel called for a minor bowl boycott last year, arguing that a recent petition signed by more than 300 current college athletes demanding a bigger slice of the TV money pie simply wasn’t enough to bring about real change. ESPN.com’s Jemele Hill also argued for an intentional work stoppage, even though she opines for a network whose bottom line would be damaged by lost programming. "Other unions have done this," says Meggyesy, himself a longtime National Football League Players Association executive. "Airline pilots. The 'blue flu' with the cops. It's not an unknown phenomenon for exploited workers to put pressure this way."
In the 1980s, the leading voice -- maybe the only voice -- for an athlete uprising was that of Dick DeVenzio, a former Duke point guard and 1971 academic All-American. DeVenzio wrote a book, "Rip-off U," indicting amateurism. He created an organization, the Revenue Producing Major College Players Association. Working out of his Charlotte townhouse, without the advantage of the Internet but with the benefit of old-fashioned lick-seal envelopes, he sent weekly pamphlets and newsletters to 300 college athletes. He was passionate, committed, a man ahead of his time. And yet, "no one took him seriously," says veteran sports writer Dave Kindred, who wrote about DeVenzio extensively. "It was Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. You depend on people to do the right thing, but when you're talking about millions of dollars, people have to be made to do the right thing. Dick recognized the principle [of striking], argued for it. But he couldn't bring it to life."
In 1987, Kindred says, DeVenzio asked Oklahoma football stars Brian Bosworth and Spencer Tillman to delay the start of a game against Nebraska. The players considered the idea but instead kneeled for a pregame prayer intended to draw attention to athlete's rights. Similarly, former UMass guard Rigo Nunez told HBO's "Real Sports" last year that prior to the opening games of 1995 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a large number of teams from across the country -- including UCLA, Wake Forest and the top-ranked Minutemen -- intended to walk to the middle of the court, sit down and let the ball bounce. The players were fed up. They felt exploited. In a subsequent radio interview, Nunez recalled seeing his digital doppelganger in the first "Coach K" college basketball game for the Sega Genesis: His number, his height, his stats, even the Afro he sported at the time. Yet no compensation. Nunez also said he personally spoke with 15 players, some of them future NBA stars. By the time the Atlantic 10 tournament started, he thought the boycott was going to happen, that it would involve "75 percent of the [opening games] not being played. It was going to be huge. Definitely change the way we operate from an NCAA perspective, the whole scope of amateur sports."
It never did. The athletes got cold feet. The tournament went off without a hitch. "You had a lot of pressure," Nunez said. "Am I not going to be able to play in the NBA if I do this? Will I be blackballed? All those things weighted heavily on each player." And therein lies the rub of a potential college athlete strike: It would be really, really hard to pull off. For starters players like playing. Games are a reward, a hard thing to sacrifice. Then there are practical barriers. As DeVenzio discovered, college athletes are decentralized, spread across the country, tough to rally around a common cause. "The secret of [former professional baseball union leader] Marvin Miller's success was that the players completely bought in," Kindred says. "You don't have that kind of organization ability in college athletics. Players come and go. They come and go even faster now, one and done."
According to Branch, a college basketball team once was suspected of planning to boycott the NCAA title game. But the team lost before the finals. (The team in question is widely suspected to be UNLV in 1991; the players were the defending national champions and coach Jerry Tarkanian had a longtime running feud with the NCAA. Former Runnin' Rebels point guard Greg Anthony did not respond to an email inquiry).
Players also have reason to fear retaliation. Coaches and administrators wield enormous power, largely due to the NCAA-wide practice of one-year renewable scholarships. "If the real star players were involved, the university would protect a couple of them,” Meggyesy says. “But if you go to that level of confrontation, the school probably would be compelled to take a few guys and scapegoat them." In a way, college athletes under amateurism's yoke live in a state of learned helplessness – perpetual resignation, if not outright Stockholm Syndrome. At Stanford University, Meggyesy taught courses about the place of sports in society. His classroom was peppered with athletes, smart and aware, interested in civil rights and social justice. Yet even they seemed unwilling and unable to take a stand against amateurism. “It was like a gulag for them,” he says. "Oh, [expletive], I gotta go to work, put in my time, get my education. This is what I have to do, and I’m not going to think about the larger injustice because it's too [expletive] painful. Just do your best in a bad situation."
A strike would change that. It would make the bad situation of big-time college sports better by making it more equitable, more honest. By exercising their dormant power, players would become partners, not serfs, free to make negotiable demands instead of unheeded requests. Maybe college athletes don’t want cash. Maybe they want four-year, irrevocable scholarships and lifetime health insurance for their injuries. Maybe they want the same right to profit from their image and endorsement deals that college-attending actors and musicians take for granted. Or maybe they really do want a salaried piece of the multibillion-dollar pie. Whatever the case, the important thing isn’t the particulars; it’s that athletes would have the ability to ask. And that matters. At their core -- or at least at the for-show ersatz core that ensures ongoing tax-exempt educational status – college sports are supposed to be about more than wins and losses. They’re supposed to be about building and shaping character. Do we want a system that conditions our athletes to think like atomized short-timers, too cynical and defeated to care about anything but the scraps they can grift from a corrupt system? Or do we want sports to nurture independent thinkers, empowered individuals who also can work together for a common good?
While playing at Syracuse, Meggyesy repeatedly refused to be put on team's under-the-table payroll, costing himself about $100 a month. He was young. Idealistic. He believed in the amateur ideal, that sports should be played for the love of the game. By his senior season, things were different. Meggyesy was married. His wife was pregnant. He lived in student housing. He was broke. He saw everyone else making money from football – the school, his coaches, his teammates on the take. His thinking changed.
"I saw there was a commercial side, I'm not getting money but I'm the product," Meggyesy says. "As [former NFL player] Brian Mitchell says, 'I'm the steak, and I'm the chef that cooks the steak.' Isn't it fairer that I get some of the money?" He started taking cash, $30 a week in brown paper envelopes, distributed by Schwartzwalder's secretary. "I changed my values," Meggyesy says. "I unchained my brain."
College athletes of the world: Unite. Then strike. You have nothing to lose but your mental chains. All you need is courage. Conviction. The feeling that enough is enough. Because here's the dirty little secret about refusing to play: it works. Take it from Meggyesy. When the Syracuse players met with Schwartzwalder, demanding watches, the atmosphere was tense. The coach was tough, no-nonsense, a working-class hardass from the coal mine country of West Virginia. He also was practical. He saw his team was serious. And seriously pissed. He needed them. They were the talent. Who else was going to play in the Liberty Bowl?
Hold on, he told the room. Sit tight.
"Lo and behold, a few days later they came up with watches," Meggyesy says. "They were nice. I think they were self-winding. Those were new at the time, and that was cool."
"I don't think the Miami guys got a watch."
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