It's usually adorable when politicians try to venture into college sports. Combine grandstanding with a distinct lack of understanding of the system upon which an elected official is attempting to impose rules, and you have a recipe for comedy. Today's example comes from Missouri state representative Rick Brattin, who has introduced a bill that would revoke the scholarships of athletes who refuse to play for any reason other than injury.
This is obviously a response to the Missouri football team's threat in November to sit out a game against BYU. That move by the players turned a local story into a national one and basically got Missouri's system president and chancellor fired. And while there is a robust argument to be had about whether that was the appropriate result, this isn't the site for that. Today, as the Internet commenters always command, we'll stick to sports.
Brattin apparently thinks college athletes should shut up and play. This might be a semi-acceptable stance if they were employees working under a mutually agreed upon contract. But the problem is that the the leaders of the NCAA—to which the University of Missouri belongs—and the Southeastern Conference—to which the University of Missouri also belongs—have said multiple times in federal court and elsewhere that college athletes are not employees. They are simply students who happen to play sports as a hobby. We can all have a hearty laugh at that notion, but a lot of money rides on that fallacy being believed by certain people. That's why the NCAA, the SEC and the individual universities can do nothing to an athlete's scholarship if that player sits in protest. It would put the lie to legal strategy employed by the NCAA, conferences and schools. And since that legal strategy is all about protecting their money from athletes who want a bigger cut of the revenues from football and men's basketball, they aren't about to abandon it now.
We know Brattin is grandstanding and his bill has no conceivable chance of passing, but just for giggles, let's take a look at what might happen if the elected officials in Missouri were dumb enough to make this idea a law.
We'll start on the field.
Since teammates, much like politicians who vote strictly along party lines, tend to stick together, we'll assume any protest would involve an entire team. Since it already has threatened to boycott a game, we'll use the Missouri football team as our example.Richey Miller/Cal Sport Media via AP Images
If all 85 scholarship players at Missouri refused to play and had their scholarships revoked thanks to Brattin's law, Missouri would have zero scholarship players. The NCAA only allows FBS teams to bring in 25 scholarship players a year, so it would take at least four years—and probably longer because of natural attrition—for Missouri to get back to the full complement of scholarship players. Remember, the NCAA isn't going to help Missouri get back to 85 with any sort of special dispensation because it isn't about to reward the people who blew up a legal strategy upon which the association has spent millions.
So what would happen to Missouri's football program? Have you seen the 1991 classic Necessary Roughness? It would look just like that, only without the gravitas of Scott Bakula, the hilarity of Sinbad, the beauty of Kathy Ireland or the win at the end of the season. The mostly walk-on Tigers would get smashed in every game by teams composed of scholarship players. Missouri's coaches either would ask for more money or quit and seek other jobs. Season ticket sales and donations would plummet, making it tougher for Missouri to recruit good coaches in the future. Meanwhile, Brattin would become the guy who turned Missouri football into a doormat.
The players who lost scholarships would get a quick lesson in competitive markets. While most of the "athletes should shut up" crowd believes each player is a delicate flower lucky to be plucked from oblivion by his school, the truth is a scholarship player on an SEC team probably had multiple scholarship offers out of high school. Other universities competed to win his services, and they'd likely do so again. Because they were good enough to be recruited by Missouri, most if not all of the players would be offered scholarships by schools that live below Missouri in the college football ecosystem.
Why? Because they're better at football than the players at those other schools, and the coaches at those other schools get paid to win games. The players who were under-recruited out of high school probably also would get offers from programs considered better than Missouri. So they could thank Brattin for helping them trade up. Brattin's bill is no real threat to their pursuit of a free college education. It's merely a threat that if they speak out, they might have to spend a weekend packing up their dorm room to move to another school.
Meanwhile, the attorneys suing the NCAA and conferences in federal court would have valuable new ammunition. When Jenkins v. NCAA goes to trial, the NCAA's attorneys would no longer be able to use the "regular students" defense without getting pounced upon by plaintiffs attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who is to the NCAA's legal team what the Missouri players are to FCS players. A verdict that goes against the NCAA in that case would blow up the business model for major college sports. Lose that case and the rules against paying college athletes would have to be abolished. Since the aforementioned "regular students" concept is the tentpole that holds up the NCAA's defense in court, its absence would force the NCAA's attorneys to earn their billable hours by crafting a new defense which probably wouldn't be as good as the rickety one it replaced.
So, to sum up, the passage of Brattin's bill could suppress free speech, cause Missouri to stink at football and cause the NCAA to lose its ability to enforce its amateurism rules. But other than that, it's a swell piece of legislation.