Before Missouri football players threatened to boycott a game over racism on campus, before Northwestern football players tried to unionize, before the conversation about college sports began to really involve the rights of students ...
There was St. Bonaventure.
There was the team that boycotted its final two regular season games after a player-eligibilty scandal blew up their season.
Looking back on the biggest story of my career, it is surprising to see how absent the players are from that story. Jamil Terrell is there in name and academic history only. The players, for the most part, didn't speak to me or to any media outlet during the scandal. The story was about the grown-ups: the university president who declared a player eligible even though he admitted to not being an expert in the complicated NCAA transfer-eligibility rules, the coaching staff that wanted the player eligible no matter what, the athletic director who tried to raise alerts but wasn't successful, the board of trustee members who trusted the wrong person.
Except for one interview on SportsCenter, and one letter sent to the New York Times that was only partially printed, the players' voices were absent.
Looking back at that story now with 13 years of hindsight, the players held all the power in that story. Their decision to boycott the final two games - between half and three-quarters of the team left campus after finding out the team's punishment - changed the nature of that story. Now this wasn't just a player eligibility story with the weird hook of a welding certificate. Now this was a huge story. The players were roundly criticized, regionally and nationally for their decision. I vividly remember Tony Kornheiser saying the school should be thrown out of the Atlantic 10 because of it.
But the boycott was not done purely from a place of emotion. Gothard Lane, the athletic director at the time, told me and Chuck Pollock (my editor) that star point guard Marques Green told him that the players didn't want to play because they felt they were being punished for the actions of the adults. The New York Times reported a similar theme in a letter from players that said, in part, that there was "a lack of sympathy, a level of disrespect, depth of deceitfulness shown to us and the absence of adult leadership that made it impossible to agree in participating in the final two games."
According to The Times, the players eventually regretted that decision. But that decision is what spurred change at St. Bonaventure. It caused embarrassment and shame, but it created change. The president who was at fault was fired within a week. The coaching staff would soon be gone, as would the athletic diector. A player would be on the search committee for a new coach.
The players had the power, and they used it.
In retrospect, the story seems positively quaint. A scandal about a player who had a welding certificate and was incorrectly declared eligible by the school president? After scandals involving the institutional cover up of child rape, of campus rape, of murder and drug deals, of widespread academic fraud, the St. Bonaventure scandal seems almost cute.
Looking back at the biggest story of my career, I wonder if we missed the real story. We concentrated our reporting, our writing, our thinking, on the institutions and the grown ups in traditional positions of power, the decisions they made and the reasons for them. We ignored the ones who held the real power - the students.
The writing of Dan Wetzel, Patrick Hruby, Taylor Branch and countless others have exposed NCAA hypocrisy over the past decade. Players' voices are heard more often now. Sometimes - with Missouri football, with Northwetern's unionization push - players are using their power to affect change.
And it all started at St. Bonaventure.