Over the weekend, players of color on the University of Missouri football team announced they would not participate in any football-related activities until university system president Tim Wolfe resigned, saying Wolfe had failed to address racist incidents on campus. As many have noted, the players’ strike could have cost the university’s football program millions of dollars.
This morning, Wolfe resigned.
The move was heralded as a victory by protesters and student organizers with the Concerned Student 1950 group, one of whom, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike on Nov. 2 demanding Wolfe’s resignation. The string of events also showed how student athletes involved in big-money sports programs can leverage their position off the field. We rounded up a few takes to help you make sense of the situation.
For a little background on how all this got started, here’s Jon Levine at Mic:
“In just the last 90 days, the Mizzou campus has been rocked by a series of racial events that many have accused school leadership of allowing to go unexplained, under-investigated or both. In September, the student body president, Payton Head, who is black, was harassed near the campus and repeatedly called a ‘nigger.’ Eleven other students, members of the school’s Legion of Black Collegians, were also called the slur by a white student, while campus security that witnessed the incident reportedly did nothing. In October, a swastika painted in human feces was found on a dorm wall.
“Wolfe also faces pressure off-campus, with the Democrats of the Missouri statehouse calling for his resignation. ‘It has become increasingly clear in recent days that UM System President Tim Wolfe is not the person to tackle the university’s racial problems and build a future for the institution that all Missourians can be proud of,’ Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty wrote in a statement to the Columbia Missourian. ‘For the good of the UM System, President Wolfe needs to step down without delay, and the Board of Curators must immediately address the demands of minority students.’
Michael E. Miller at The Washington Post noted that the school’s football players stood firmly behind Butler and had the support of their coaches. He added that the program stood to lose $1 million if the team did not play in its upcoming game:
“On Sunday, MU football coach Gary Pinkel seemed to throw his entire team’s support behind the protests, tweeting a picture of his players along with the protest’s #ConcernedStudent1950 hashtag and the message: ‘The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.’
” ‘After meeting with the team this morning, it is clear they do not plan to return to practice until Jonathan resumes eating,’ Pinkel and Athletic Director Mack Rhoades said in a statement.
“At stake is more than just pride for the struggling Southeastern Conference squad. If the football team’s boycott doesn’t end by Saturday, when Mizzou is scheduled to play Brigham Young University, the school won’t just forfeit the game; it will also automatically forfeit $1 million for breaking a contract between the two colleges. For MU, the total cost likely will be far higher.”
At The Root, Peniel E. Joseph compared the players’ strike to activism by famous black athletes in the 1960s:
“The participation of black student-athletes has drawn national attention and is a hopeful sign of how movement-building over the past year has penetrated the consciousness of the entire African-American community as well as the wider American public. With their bold and courageous stance on behalf of black humanity, these young men are echoing the heroic activism of 1960s-era sports icons (Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos), who used athletic excellence to pursue social justice.”
Dave Zirin at The Nation wrote about the immense influence of football at some universities, and how the players capitalized on that influence to affect change:
“If Wolfe goes, it will show how university power really works in a country where football coaches are often the most highly paid people on campus and universities are like a company town whose primary business is football. The actions of these players is best understood as a rumble of the sleeping giant. We have felt similar stirrings in recent years when Northwestern football players pushed for union recognition and the players at Grambling struck against their unsafe working conditions. When players take these kinds of direct actions, they show what they really are: a labor force. And like all labor forces they are concerned with issues like union rights, safe working conditions, and some form of redress if they are in a hostile work environment. Based upon what’s been happening at MU, it is certainly that.”
Over at Fox Sports, Clay Travis was unsympathetic to the players’ strike and dismissive of the protesters’ complaints about racism on campus. He did, however, raise an interesting question of what could happen if college football players were to strike for another cause like, say, fair compensation.
“I happen to think they’re striking for a dumb reason. But what if they were striking to be paid to play football? I might well support that. These players make millions for their universities. What would happen if one team’s strike spread across college football and on one Saturday no one played any games? What happens then? Think of the billions of dollars at stake for the universities and their television partners. If they unite, the players have the power here. … From a legal perspective this is all fascinating.”
Here’s a tweet from ESPN’s Bomani Jones regarding a former Mizzou lineman who called players “ungrateful”:
The football team likely played an integral role in Wolfe’s resignation, but protests and organization were bigger than the athletes, The Nation‘s Zirin says:
We’ll keep an eye out for more interesting reactions to this story; tweet at @NPRCodeSwitch if you come across any good links.