By Tim Baffoe–

(CBS) On Saturday, we will again get into the routine of college football. Part of that involves a misleading message.

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It’s the worst, most naively idealized argument of the NCAA Division I football or men’s basketball player — that we’re watching the “student-athlete.”

It’s as though these young men who make their universities millions of dollars for their labor while taking constant road trips that would make it impossible for an honors student to get a real education are in it for the degree. It’s like the NBA’s and NFL’s age limit rules aren’t a factor in every freshman superstar not currently making millions of his own.

Major college football and hoops aren’t about the former of the NCAA’s dry hump PR hyphenation of “student-athlete.” They’re entirely about the latter, a detour on the way to making big money.

Except when it isn’t. Except when an individual or a group of D-I players stands up and breaks from the role as drone.

That’s when the latter of the hyphenation “student-athlete” allows for us to truly see the potential of the former.

The University of Missouri Tigers football team is a collective of student-athletes. This is a group whose majority showed these past few days what an education really is — how to absorb information, dissect it and make a conscientious choice on how to use it. More specifically, the Missouri players chose to weaponize it, and in doing so, they became everything monstrous to the Frankenstein that is the NCAA choosing to play God with its creation.

Detractors of the Tigers’ peaceful protest that involved a suspension of football activities until the demands of a hunger-striking Mizssouri grad student and his #ConcernedStudent1950 supporters were met — and they were Monday in the form of the resignations of school president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin — note that this could set a dangerous precedent of student-athletes using their positions as cogs in a powerful machine that is the NCAA for leverage. They contend this might start tainting the sanctity that is the indentured servitude of an athletic scholarship, that the players will break the contract they figuratively signed that said their commitment was to the team above all else (including learning non-team stuff), that they might start putting social issues ahead of — gasp — sports.


Cynics and their red herrings will ask, “If the Tigers were 9-0, would this be happening?” Possibly not, and that isn’t the point, but wouldn’t that give an undefeated team even more leverage in such a situation? How afraid are you of that happening someday?

With all due respect to the outliers on the Dean’s List that get the feature pieces on pregame and halftime shows, these are actual student-athletes. And with much less respect to the millionaire pimps who talk of being more teacher than coach, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel has actually harnessed a teachable moment and is educating beyond the practice field.

It should be noted that it’s a fair criticism to point out that, like any successful classroom teacher, that Pinkel has failed in educational practice before. We should also be aware the college students by the very nature of what they are — young adults still growing intellectually — err at times in the energies, tilt at windmills and distract from actual progress. But campuses becoming havens of intolerance toward intolerance (and you aren’t versed in the tolerance paradox if you disagree with that) is overall evolutionary to our species.

This then is the nightmare of the NCAA and every college sports fan who refuses to release himself or herself from the Santa Claus delusion that amateur sports are wholesome and pure (or that there is such a thing as amateurism at all). And in delicious irony, it backs their rhetoric into a once unforeseen corner.

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“These athletes are there for an education. That’s their payment.”

And now we see some of them showing what they’ve learned.

There have been traditionally two types of college students. One is the kid who uses the long, strange drunken trip to a degree as a means to a career (not unlike someone who needs a year or two on a campus to be eligible to play in the NFL or NBA). This isn’t so much a student has a processed ID number who falls backward into the workforce with perhaps some aide of nepotism or alumni connections, or at the very least a piece of paper from School U that society says equals competence.

Then there’s the collegian in search of himself or herself, the bright teenager not exactly sure what life has in store or one who finds out during college that life has something unexpected instead. This is the kid from high school who each Thanksgiving back home during your college years you noticed morphed more and more into a different person (sometimes for the annoyingly, lecturingly, libertario-veganly worse). Sometimes that hungry intellectual wanderer doesn’t even know s/he is in search of something greater.

Such is a 2015 Missouri Tiger football player, including the anonymous conscientious dissenting players and coaches reluctant to join in the protest.

Such is a true student-athlete, one who puts a collegiate cause beyond the self above personal fortune in a sport or the indoctrination that he owes all to his team.

A la the Northwestern Wildcats who questioned their lot in life. Their questioning and experimentation with American labor structures — a sort of broadening scientific method, if you will — led to unfavorable results for those who believe the NCAA is an exploited pawn in a plutocracy. But there was that questioning of accepted norms and daring to grab at that Promethean fire — along with vows by their elected players union to re-experiment in true laboratory fashion — that was the utmost studious expression.

Ditto for Simon Cvijanovic, the University of Illinois student and former Fighting Illini football player who decided that aspects of the program he was part of weren’t ethically sound. He spoke up, tweeting about perceived wrongs existing in the way Illini coaches, most notably then-head coach Tim Beckman, were treating players. Cvijanovic cited the rock-and-hard-place players find themselves in to play beyond pain, lest they be considered soft and how “There is no one to speak on the behalf of the student athlete.” He took it upon himself to speak on behalf of himself and all those yoked by their scholarships and football culture perceptions.

On Monday, Illinois fired athletic director Mike Thomas following the conclusion of investigations into coaching practices of the football and women’s basketball programs. Beckman was found in that report to have violated sports medicine protocols and scholarships standards. The Illini women’s hoops team also came under investigation for alleged unethical coaching practices.

Student-athletes created change. It’s the very thing those universities’ commercials supposedly proclaim during game timeouts.

Should the NCAA be scared that its robots become sentient and organize like this in future labor issues? They’ve now shown they can affect change, and on the heels of Missouri and legal cases like Ed O’Bannon’s, these situations of sports improvisationally backing uncomfortable social issues will only increase in number.

Perhaps more frightening to the NCAA is that college sports fans who tout athletes as being there for education need to admit this sort of thing is education and expression of learning. Football and basketball players being aware of the weight their statuses potentially carry when intersecting with social issues — for example, how many of us are talking about Missouri this week if the football team didn’t get involved? — is an explosive prospect to the future of college sports.

That sure is an education. We’re going to see actual students-athletes take the field Saturday when Missouri hosts BYU.

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Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.