Ezekiel Elliott and the Overdue Thaw of College Football Politics

Ezekiel Elliott and the Overdue Thaw of College Football Politics

Ezekiel Elliott and the Overdue Thaw of College Football Politics

Meet the new normal in college football.


Ezekiel Elliott has apologized. The star Ohio State running back went off on his lauded $50 million head coach Urban Meyer after garnering just 12 carries in a brutal loss to the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday. Among many other things, Elliott said:

I just feel like we weren’t put in the right opportunity to win this game.… Honestly, I can’t speak for the play calling. I don’t know what was going on. I don’t know what they were seeing.… I’ve got to make the most of my time left, and I just want to thank Buckeye Nation for making this place so special, and I’m sorry about tonight.

He then made clear that he would be doing what many expected him to—leave Columbus after this season to go to the NFL. What was less expected was his making this clear the week before what is traditionally Ohio State’s biggest game of the year against Michigan.

Elliott’s words might seem tame, but this was like the housekeeper who spoke out of turn while serving dinner to the Lord of the Manor and his guests in Gosford Park. (Yes! Ezekiel Elliott is the Emily Watson of college football.) After days of uproar, when the biggest professional names in amateur sports journalism blasted Elliott, the running back said:

I am sorry for all those offended by the statements made by me Saturday after OUR loss. My intentions were not to point fingers at anyone for OUR failure I just want Buckeye Nation to know I am sorry for all controversy and unrest I caused in the past couple of days. But I promise you all will get a focused and prepared team this Saturday when we travel to Ann Arbor.

Elliott’s comments about not getting enough carries comes just a week after the Missouri Tigers went on strike against racism on their campus and for the removal of university system president Tim Wolfe. On the surface, these two events don’t seem to have anything in common. And if college football was not a constitution free zone of indentured servitude, they wouldn’t. In the NFL, for example, a player voicing frustrations would be received much differently than a team going on a damn wildcat strike.

But the NCAA is different. And actions that seemed unfathomable five years ago are now a part of the college football landscape. A union campaign? A strike over unsafe working conditions? A strike over racism? Players wearing rebellious hashtags on their uniforms? A player daring to speak his mind about a coaching strategy that has people scratching their heads? It’s all part of an overdue thaw, a slow democratization of space that has traditionally operated as an autocracy where players are to be seen and not heard.

There’s plenty of resistance to this evolution, however. One of the most telling tweets about Elliott’s words were from Yahoo Sports’ ace college football reporter Charles Robinson who said, “Go to work Monday, tell your bosses how disappointed you are that they totally sucked at their job. See how it goes.”

There is so much to parse in this one tweet. The most obvious part is that Robinson is describing college football as “work” and coaches as “bosses,” which is the Technicolor truth behind a grey curtain of bullshit about “student-athletes.” And yet, players lack even the most minimal rights that even non-union, service-industry workers—the ones economists coldly refer to as “disposable labor”—have in this country. They lack the freedom to organize, to earn a wage at a second job, to earn a wage at their first job. They lack them even though the Ezekiel Elliotts of this world are utterly essential to keeping the trains of this billion-dollar industry running on time.

The second part is that Charles Robinson is on a bigger level absolutely correct. Most of us don’t have the freedom to say something to our bosses even when they are demonstrably, glaringly wrong. So the question goes, as sports becomes a funhouse mirror for our society as a whole, do we want our workspace to look more like college football with its rigid hierarchies, one-way flows of orders, and even—as is the case at most big time sports schools—restrictions on use of social media? Or do we want college football to be democratized?

No matter what “we” want, college football players are not going to wait for the okay. They are realizing that this business depends upon their compliance, and they are feeling anything but placid.

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