By Doctor Comrade
Last Friday, Missouri State Representatives Rick Brattin and Kurt Bahr introduced HB 1743, a proposal to strip student athletes of their scholarships if they refused to play “for a reason unrelated to health.” This of course comes in response to the University of Missouri football team threatening to strike unless then-president Tim Wolfe resigned, a threat that was a response to Wolfe’s refusal to address racist attacks on the school’s campus. Today, Rep. Brattin withdrew the proposal without comment.
As pointed out by Nora Caplan-Bricker, Brattin’s proposal is part of a long history of attempting to “keep tight control over primarily black student athletes while getting their labor for free.” As I wrote at the beginning of the NFL season, colleges and universities provide the cheap and exploitative pipeline of almost limitless warm bodies for the National Football League. In August, the National Labor Relations Board rejected a bid by Northwestern University’s football team to unionize. Already forced to participate in a system that strips them of the ability to sell their labor, reactionary politicians were ready to strip student athletes of their constitutional rights as well.
On the surface, this is clearly a racial and classist issue. Students from working-class families who otherwise would not have been able to attend college sell their health and wellbeing to football programs in exchange for subpar education. The justification for collegiate athletes not receiving salaries has always been to maintain the spirit of amateurism by remunerating the athletes with education. However, by attempting to strip athletes of their meager payment, we see reactionaries attempting to restrict the content of anti-racist discourse. What horrifies politicians like Brattin and Bahr is the fact that an oppressed group of students might rebel against an exploitative system. The only power that workers have in the labor market is collective action, and we know that conservatives have been fighting unionization and other forms of worker organization for 150 years. When the UM football players threatened to strike, when they organized their labor against oppressive conditions on behalf of all UM students, they utilized the only effective working-class strategy against worker exploitation.
Rep. Brattin, in his third term in the Missouri House of Representatives, has a familiar track record with anti-working class policies. For example, he sponsored HB 813, a bill that would have slashed food stamp programs for impoverished families. He believes the program is wasteful and allows working-class families to purchase extravagant food items like filet mignon. Similar to efforts in Kansas and other states to demonize the working class, Brattin and his reactionary cohort are targeting working-class families for punishment.
And that’s exactly what HB 1743 would have been: a punitive measure against working-class individuals for having the wherewithal to challenge established hierarchies. At the heart of this issue, underlying the racist and classist implications of violating the constitutional rights of students, is the re-inscription of behavioral expectations for working-class people. What is evident from proposals like 1743 is that students are expected to conform, to stay silent about their mistreatment, to tolerate the whims of those in power. This crass attempt to silence dissent is nothing more than an attempt to punish those who would mobilize for a better system.
We also have to remember that the football team’s action was in no way radical, but merely a mobilization of a well-worn tactic. Threatening to strike is as old as labor unions, and work slowdowns and stoppages are part of a long history of worker resistance that goes back hundreds of years. And in this way, Brattin and Bahr’s attempt to silence dissent is simply another manifestation of bourgeois response: deprive the worker of their means until they are too weak to resist. It’s a convenient restructuring of the free market in which the ruling class controls the freedom of the workers.