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It's a stroke of good luck for the college athletics industrial complex that there's no need to worry about a national anthem controversy blossoming out of its showcase college football weekend beginning Thursday.
Even as the NFL sees more and more players following the lead of Colin Kaepernick to protest racial inequality and police violence, even as NBA stars become bolder and louder advocates for social justice, there's no point in asking what would happen if players from Alabama and Florida State wanted to kneel during The Star-Spangled Banner on Saturday at a stadium erected a couple miles from where Martin Luther King Jr. was born.
Unlike the NFL, college football teams stay in their locker rooms during the anthem, saving the likes of Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney from a backlash in deep red states where college football means the most and any form of player protest likely won't be well received.
But in the last year since Kaepernick's protest was first noticed, momentum for high-profile black athletes to become activists has grown. And it's just a matter of time before it filters down to college sports, potentially bringing light to issues from racial inequality to campus policing to college athlete compensation.
"As soon as Kaepernick did what he did, I could see that was the beginning of something and guys were going to join him," said Bill Curry, the former Alabama coach who was president of the NFL Players Association during the 1974 strike and helped lay the groundwork for players to ultimately achieve free agency. "The protest thing in the NFL is only going to grow, and the college guys, they're figuring it out and they'll start saying, 'This isn't right, this isn't the American way,' so I think they'll follow along and there will be more and more organization."
Make no mistake, the recent events in Charlottesville, Va., the current climate of political polarization and the current imperative for college athletes to "stay woke" have spurred discussions inside college athletics departments across the country about how to deal with potential protests. The climate has changed fairly significantly since even a few years ago when the Missouri football team boycotted in conjunction with a Black Lives Matter protest or when some Northwestern players attempted to unionize.
"I was born in 1970, but it seems to feel a lot like the '60s," said Virginia Tech athletics director Whit Babcock, who acknowledged ongoing discussions within his department and the administration about how to approach possible athlete protests. "Even though it is vastly different, the Northwestern (situation) gave a lot of us some time to talk about how we would handle such things. It is a new frontier."
Several other athletics directors contacted by USA TODAY Sports acknowledged raising the issue with their football teams. While the industry consensus is few would actively try to stop a protest, much of the conversation has been steered toward collaboration with coaches, administrators and teammates to bring issues to light and helping them understand the potential for backlash rather than individuals striking out on their own.
"More in terms of opening the door for them to have dialogue with coaches and administrators about concerns they have," Tulane athletics director Troy Dannen said. "But I think we will see more and more ahead."
That kind of language, though, strikes former college and pro football player Wade Davis as an implicit deterrent for bold action. Now a public speaker and advocate focusing on racial, gender and LGBT issues, Davis pointed toward the culture of a college football team where the coach has the biggest hammer and athletes often don't want to do anything that would jeopardize their scholarship and chance to make the NFL.
"It speaks to the desire to control what the protest looks like and what the outcome is," Davis said. "They don't want to lose money. They don't want fans not going to games. I think it's even more complicated in college than it is in the pro game because these kids have less power and it's just a different dynamic in the NFL. These guys aren't even paid, per se, in the same way pro athletes are, so there's a different level of ownership the college level feels over their athletes. Imagine kids who play for Alabama kneeling. I mean, there would be a riot."
Dave Zirin, who has authored several books on how protests, social changes and sports have intersected at key moments in history, noted that college athletes have been engaged in important movements recently, including former Wisconsin basketball star Bronson Koenig going to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and Georgetown rowers covering up Nike swooshes to protest sweatshop labor practices.
But nothing would have the impact of star players on a major-college football team bringing light to an issue during a prime-time game. Which is why it ultimately will make its way to "the big kahuna," as Zirin called it, even if the barriers are higher than in some other sports.
"The ferment is there," Zirin said. "But I think when NCAA football players protest about racism, which is really what we're talking about, the stakes are so much higher for everybody involved than in the NFL, which means it encompasses a lot more risk and it also means that platform is going to be policed so much harder because these guys don't have a union that can support them.
"You look at the NFL, and yeah, you've got some fans who are like, 'I'm never going to come to a game again,' but it's like, 'Gimme a break, nobody believes you.' The NFL is locked into TV money for years to the tune of billions of dollars. They'll be fine for a little bit of bad publicity. But at the NCAA level, look what happened at Missouri. That hangs over this whole thing."
Indeed, the potential power of a college football team getting behind a cause was revealed in November 2015 when it threatened to boycott a game against BYU. Fewer than 48 hours later, the president of the University of Missouri system resigned and the shock waves are still being felt as the school's subsequent drop in enrollment has been directly tied to that week's events.
"In this day and age, the university system is at the heart of the economic, political and psychological life of an entire city, especially in these small cities in the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12," Zirin said. "The success of the football team is make or break for the economy, so if a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds mess with that, the ripple effect is crazy."
Though it might still be polarizing, it's no longer surprising to see Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James fire off a Twitter missive at President Trump for his response to Charlottesville or for Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett to pick up where Kaepernick left off.
But what would happen if a star college football player, particularly at a high-profile school in the Deep South, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt during warm-ups or used a postgame media session to talk about police brutality and racial profiling rather than the game?
What would the consequences be for the school? What kind of pressure would conservative white fans put on the coach to denounce it publicly? And what would the recruiting consequences be for the coach if he tried to stifle a player bringing light to an issue?
"It's an entirely different dynamic because the coach in college holds absolute sway," Curry said. "I would pray that nobody would say, 'I'm taking your scholarship away,' and I don't think I know anybody that would do a thing like that, but that's what is possible at the college level."
Given the current climate, it's a matter of time before someone tests that theory. And given how scared athletics departments are about this very scenario, even without an anthem to kneel for, college football players might find out they have more power and a louder voice than they knew.
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