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Missouri resignations show NCAA athletes' power

The resignations of key University of Missouri officials underscore the power of protest on college campuses. But they also highlight the leverage student-athletes hold over social issues in the increasingly influential world of college athletics.

Tim Wolfe, the University of Missouri system's embattled president, stepped down Monday amid student claims that the university failed to address racial tension and inequality during his tenure. R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of Missouri's flagship Columbia campus, also announced he would leave the post at the end of the year.

Tensions at the university increased after a swastika was drawn in feces on a dormitory wall last month. Graduate student Jonathan Butler recently went on a hunger strike that he said would end when Wolfe stepped down. This weekend, amid a string of student demonstrations, at least 30 black Missouri football players said they would not participate in team activities until Wolfe resigned.

The players' threat likely contributed to Wolfe's resignation, as a strike could have caused millions of dollars in losses to Missouri's athletics program, experts said. And as college sports grow increasingly lucrative, more student-athletes are likely to use their political clout on campus.

A file photo of Tim Wolfe, University of Missouri
Jeff Roberson | AP
A file photo of Tim Wolfe, University of Missouri

"Don't expect that this will be a unique protest. There are more bubbling beneath the surface," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who studies sports.

In his resignation remarks, Wolfe did not explicitly say the football team influenced his decision. However, he cited the "clear, real" anger expressed by student groups as well as athletes.

"I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred," he said.

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In recent days, head football coach Gary Pinkel and other Missouri officials expressed solidarity with the players. Facing a united front in its prominent athletics department, the school may have realized Wolfe's resignation was "the only way out," said John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University sports economist.

Missouri's athletics department and student association did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

How much would a strike cost?

The players' actions are the latest in a trend of athletes using their position to highlight social issues on campus. Earlier this year, University of Oklahoma football players protested after a now-defunct fraternity chapter's chant about refusing to accept a black member had gone viral. And the football team at Northwestern University recently led a fight to legally unionize.

Missouri likely had a strong interest in keeping its football team intact. The program, part of the powerful Southeastern Conference, could take in an estimated $36 million this season, with about half of that coming from ticket sales, Vrooman said.

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He estimates that a player boycott would cost Missouri $3 million in ticket revenue alone in each of its two remaining home games. It could cut off hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost media rights and concession sales, not including the possible effect on recruiting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report