You have undoubtedly heard much over the past week about the ongoing situation at the University of Missouri, which has seen racial-injustice motivated protests break out across campus. The president of the university, Timothy Wolfe, was forced to resign in the face of overwhelming criticism about his slow response to the rampant racism on camp…
Wait what’s that? His resignation had nothing to do with the protests? Oh, it was just the football team threatening not to play that forced his hand? Huh.
Sports are often dismissed as being an ultimately irrelevant part of society that take up a disproportionate amount of the media’s attention and the population’s collective interest. People will complain about the federal government’s involvement in sorting out scandals in professional leagues and bemoan the fact that sports talk and highlight shows far outstrip substantive news programs in terms of ratings.
To a point, these naysayers are absolutely right; it seems silly that so many people care so much about professional athletes—who they have never met and likely have no personal connection to for that matter—playing schoolyard games for a living. But the critics of sports’ place in society fail to take into account one critical piece of the equation: money.
It’s what drives everything. Professional sports matter because people think they matter, and when the masses are really interested in something, that generates a lot of revenue. At the end of the day, sports are merely a business, albeit the single best kind of business. When the product is something insubstantial like “entertainment,” not to mention constantly evolving with new players and new styles, people can never have enough or get tired of it.
Of course, when something is a business it means there are people at the top making the money, and when something happens to the product that threatens any of that juicy revenue, problems arise. Which brings us full-circle back to Mizzou.
The catalyst for action in the Missouri situation, the one thing that forced Tim Wolfe’s hand and led to his resignation, was the threat of certain members of the football team to not play out the rest of the season. Such a boycott would have caused Mizzou to forfeit their next game against Brigham Young University and potentially others down the line if they couldn’t scrounge up enough serviceable players, and boy would that have been a hit financially. Penalties would have included a 1 million dollar fine paid directly to BYU in addition to other multi-million dollar sanctions to the NCAA itself, as well as lost TV revenue.
Like most schools with big football programs, Missouri finances much of its operations with revenue brought in from the sport. The university made 84 million dollars from its athletic department last year, most of it coming from the football program.
Losing such a massive revenue stream would be directly harmful to the school’s quality of life and its academics, and this in turn would hurt the university’s reputation.
In short, losing football would cause a chain reaction that would essentially destroy the university. Wolfe didn’t want such ignominy on his resume and so he stepped down, it’s as simple as that. It didn’t matter that there were protests or that a student threatened to starve himself to death because he thought the school was not doing enough to stop systemic racism. Wolfe didn’t share this idea and so felt that he was in the right in staying on. Money, on the other hand, isn’t a principle; it’s a cold hard reality.
So for the last time, let’s all agree to stop pretending sports don’t matter. We just witnessed a team essentially form an unregistered union and force the expulsion of the president of one of the largest universities in the country. Maybe you think it’s a good thing that the football players spoke up to end racism, maybe you think it’s wrong that they abused their power on such a contentious issue. But wherever you stand, there can be no debate over their influence.