Well, that was fast


(Divorce: A Love Story, is now available. Did I mention it’s only $2.99 and that you can’t afford *not* to buy it?!)

Not a half hour after I posted yesterday, Tim Wolfe, President of the University of Missouri system, resigned, capitulating to demands by various student groups on campus. Wolfe, his detractors repeatedly said, was responding inadequately not only to a series of recent racist incidents, but to a larger campus environment ignorant of the concerns of Black students at Missouri. The growing discontent with Wolfe gathered new force when a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike in late October. Butler said he would not eat again until Wolfe stepped down. In recent days, Missouri faculty members announced that they were walking out, in support of Butler’s hunger strike. And the final straw – on Saturday night, some thirty Black members of the Missouri football team said that they would not practice or play again until Butler ended his hunger strike. That, of course, amounted to a demand that Wolfe quit. Gary Pinkel, the head football coach, announced his support for his players.

Thirty six hours after the football players stood up, Wolfe stood down. And later in the day, the Chancellor of the University itself also announced he would be resigning, effective at the end of the year. It’s a quite stunning series of events, an undeniable testament to the power of big-time football on college campuses and, many hope, a portent of a new era both in campus activism generally and perhaps, the fight for college athletes’ rights.

A few comments:

1) I haven’t had a chance to listen to everyone, but every ESPN on air personality I’ve heard since yesterday has either been openly supportive of the players’ actions or has only forwarded very tepid reservations. Unsurprisingly, LeBatard and Stugotz expressed enthusiastic support for what amounted to a players’ strike. LeBatard and Stugotz had Dave Zirin on their show yesterday, which gives you an idea of where their sentiments lay on this issue and they clearly shared Zirin’s excitement about the potentially larger meaning of yesterday’s developments. Greenie also wholeheartedly backed the players and took time to call out what he saw as some of the more petty criticisms of their actions (more on that in a moment). Ryen Rusillo and Danny Kanell interviewed Howard Bryant at length on their show, and Bryant, like Zirin, provided thoughtful perspective on the larger context for events in Columbia, the enduring problems of race on college campuses and Wolfe’s failure to appreciate the deeper wells of grievance animating the protests. And Kanell, typically a critic of the players’ rights movement, cheered on the Mizzou players for “embracing their power.”

Perhaps the strongest statements in support of the players’ actions came from Cris Carter yesterday, prior to Wolfe’s decision to resign. Carter said he thought it was “outstanding” that the athletes were standing up in the way that they were. He noted that most people don’t understand that these  big time college football programs are housed on “predominantly white campuses” and that the typical black student on these campuses is treated very differently than the black athletes.* The black population at these schools – Carter mentioned Notre Dame, Northwestern and Ohio State, in addition to Missouri, whose black students make up 5-7% of the total – is small and the feelings of isolation and neglect are strong among non-athletes. That athletes, who have access to resources that other black students on campus don’t, were able to step outside of their own circumstances to act in solidarity with other students on campus was particularly heartening. Bomani Jones devoted significant time at the beginning of his show to Mizzou and was clearly sympathetic to the players’ actions.

2) That this episode demonstrates the potential power of football players, including black football players that comprise the majority of most of the elite programs, seems indisputable. Whether it follows that we’ll see such episodes recur is another. There is arguably an unusual set of circumstances at Missouri differentiating it from other otherwise similarly situated programs. These include:

  • a dedicated hunger striker
  • the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson last year, two hours from Columbia’s campus, with difficult-to-calculate but surely relevant bearing on the outlook of many of the Mizzou players, particularly since several members of the local pro team, the St. Louis Rams, made a highly publicized statement in support of Black Lives Matter prior to a game last year. In other words, they’d arguably already set an example for activism that Mizzou players were aware of and moved by.
  • an unusually supportive coach, Gary Pinkel who, among other things, has now been the head coach for fifteen years and has achieved a status (win or lose) not many other coaches have while also evincing a sense of proportion between football and life outside of football atypical among elite coaches.
  • related to the point above, the way that the team, led by Coach Pinkel, rallied around Michael Sam when he first came out early last year perhaps forged the team’s sense of solidarity and willingness to voice their beliefs about pressing social issues, preparing the ground for the action they took this weekend.

For these reasons, I am somewhat hesitant to read into events in Columbia a new age of politically-assertive players, in defense of their own rights or those of others. There have been encouraging rumblings, of course (depending on your point of view), including the move by Northwestern football players to unionize last year, but the obstacles to collective action contrary to the dictates of football, career concerns, potentially retributive coaches and so forth remain formidable. (Then again, social movement dynamics are inherently unpredictable, so there’s that…)

3) There was some grumbling yesterday that not every member of the Missouri football team supported the walk out and that, had Mizzou been 9-0 and in the hunt for the national championship, this wouldn’t have happened.

Greenie took exception to this line of argument (fueled primarily by an anonymously quoted member of the team), particularly the suggestion that the players were not sincere in their beliefs. Given that those who did signal a commitment to sitting out football games indefinitely might potentially have been jeopardizing their own scholarships, it’s a pretty weak line of argument. But beyond that, I would say: “so what?” As Zirin, Bryant and others said yesterday, there are always going to be differences of opinion among any group of individuals. Furthermore, even if it’s true that some players *might* have been more hesitant to strike if the team weren’t 4-5, this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. So maybe 15-20 players, rather than 30-plus might have stepped away. In every strike, protest or what have you, some individuals are more committed, more stalwart than others. This is a truism, not a serious challenge to the meaning of the protest.

In any event, it strikes me as obvious that the players were quite unified. I doubt very much whether the coach would have been as clear in his own support were that not the case.

4) Finally, though much attention has been paid to the players’ impressive show of force as players, it’s encouraging that, in this instance, they stepped away from their roles as players and identified with their peers – that is, other students. And they did so not to advocate for their own well-being (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but in support of another student, Jonathan Butler, and in response to a campus climate that affected not only them but all blacks students. Score one for the unselfish, unself-absorbed “modern athlete.”

* The paper Richard Southall and I co-wrote last year includes a discussion of the some of the rights-related implications of the substantial presence of black athletes at predominantly white schools.  As Zirin wrote in his column yesterday, Dr. Harry Edwards once described the phenomenon as “Ghana on the field, Sweden in the stands.”


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