As reporters descend on the University of Missouri, a campus reeling from the recent resignation of the president of the university system, Tim Wolfe, much of the attention has been focused on an unlikely group: the football team.
A week ago, graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike after a series of troubling events on campus — racial slurs being hurled at black students, a Nazi swastika written in human feces — and a number of attempts by students to engage administrators failed to yield substantive change. On Saturday night, 32 of the team’s black players joined the cause, refusing to play or practice until Butler ate. Their coach, Gary Pinkel, publicly expressed his support for the players on Sunday. The entire team appeared to be on strike.
By Monday morning, Wolfe was out. Protests over the administration’s tepid response to racist incidents had been ongoing for weeks before the football team joined in, but their impact on the movement was unmistakable — effectively serving as kerosene to the flames started by their fellow students.
“It is not about us; we just wanted to use our platform to take a stand as fellow concerned students on an issue, especially being as though a fellow black man’s life was on the line,” team captain Ian Simon told reporters on behalf of the team.
It may not be about them but the players’ decision to use their platform represented a dramatic shift from the common division between students and student-athletes and serves as a testament to the power of sports as a vehicle for social change.
“These players stood up for something outside football. They stood up for justice, and I think they demonstrated that players have tremendous power,” Ramogi Huma, former UCLA linebacker and founder of the National College Players Association (NCPA), told ThinkProgress.
The Missouri football team’s boycott certainly isn’t the first time a group of athletes have used their platform to influence an issue beyond the realm of athletics, but to many, this one felt different. “This case helped me realize that black male student-athletes on revenue-generating sports teams are likely the most powerful group of people of color on a university campus, especially one that has big time sports programs,” Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said.
The value of a football team to a university is no secret. Missouri was scheduled to play Brigham Young University on Saturday; canceling that contract would have cost the school $1 million.
“With sports being so interwoven into the fabric of these campuses, student-athletes are situated in a unique position of power rarely available to young people, especially young black ones,” Horatio Blackman, one of Harper’s colleagues, said via email.
Student-athletes are situated in a unique position of power rarely available to young people, especially young black ones.
“The loss of money always trumps racism,” Sam Fulwood, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said. “That’s the situation we have here, where the institutional support, the status quo in which racism was embedded at the university, couldn’t stand up to the potential loss of a football weekend.”
Butler told the Washington Post he had no idea the football players were going to join the effort, led by the student group Concerned Student 1950, a reference to the first year African Americans were admitted to the school. “I just received a call over the weekend that some of the football players had heard about what was going on and they really felt passionate about it because they felt that they are all too often separated and put into this athletic bubble away from the rest of our community, and they really wanted to reach out and bridge that gap. And so for me it was a blessing.”
That sense of isolation isn’t unique to Missouri’s football team. Harper and Blackman published a study in 2013 examining the vast inequities in revenue-generating college sports and found that between 2007–2010, black men comprised just 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students, but 57.1 percent of football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams in the six major NCAA Division I athletic conferences.
That imbalance exists on Missouri’s campus as well: Black students make up 7 percent of the total student enrollment while nearly half of the players on the current football roster are black.
When the majority of black students on a campus are athletes, and the university’s focus in recruiting black men is based on their ability to participate in revenue-generating sports, it foments the assumption that their purpose on campus is to be athletes, not students — the exact stereotype that was upended by the Missouri players.
“Through this experience we’ve really began to bridge the gap between student and athlete and the phrase student-athlete,” Simon told reporters. “By connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture, we will continue to build with the community and support positive change on Mizzou’s campus. Though we don’t experience everything the general student body does and our struggles may look different at times, we are all Concerned Student 1950.”
Let this be a testament to all other athletes across the country that you do have power.
While the situation at Missouri is unique in its scope and impact, the players aren’t the first to flex their collective muscle in recent years. In 2013, players at Grambling successfully boycotted to receive meaningful reforms. Players at Northwestern University, led by quarterback Kain Colter, fought for the right to form a union. In March, football players at the University of Oklahoma refused to practice, opting instead for a silent protest, after video of a racist chant performed by a campus fraternity surfaced.
But crossing the bridge between often isolated athletes and the rest of the student body to force mass change on a college campus the way the Missouri players were successfully able to do could have major ramifications for institutions across the country, Harper said.
That’s an opportunity and responsibility the Mizzou players seem to grasp. “Let this be a testament to all other athletes across the country that you do have power,” defensive end Charles Harris told reporters Monday, while wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” sweatshirt — the infamous last words of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man choked to death by New York police last year. “It started with a few individuals on our team and look at what it’s become. Look where it’s at right now.”