The Mizzou Football Team May Be Just the Beginning

Don’t be surprised if more black athletes exert their political power for civil rights.

Missouri Tigers

Members of the Missouri Tigers meet at midfield prior to a game against the Ole Miss Rebels during a game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Mississippi, Nov. 23, 2013.

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On Saturday, black players on the University of Missouri’s football team released a message to the school’s administration. “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’ ” read the statement, published on Twitter. “We will no longer paticipate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”

The players were referring to a series of racist incidents against black students, including slurs directed at Payton Head, the president of the Missouri Students Association, who is black. “Last night as I walking through campus, some guys riding on the back of a pickup truck decided that it would be okay to continuously scream NIGGER at me,” detailed Head in a Facebook post. Later, a group of black students—rehearsing for a part in the homecoming parade—were harassed by an intoxicated man yelling racial slurs. Students held anti-racism protests in response to both but saw little time or attention from the administration.

Last week, in response to all of this—including an incident where campus police broke up a small demonstration against the school’s president, as well as the discovery of a swastika, drawn with human feces, on a dorm wall—Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, began a hunger strike in an effort to oust Wolfe. “We have reactionary, negligent individuals on all levels at the university level on our campus and at the university system level, and so their job descriptions explicitly say that they’re supposed to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students,” said Butler in an interview with the Washington Post. “But when we have issues of sexual assault, when we have issues of racism, when we have issues of homophobia, the campus climate continues to deteriorate because we don’t have strong leadership, willing to actually make change.”

On Monday morning, following the Missouri players’ strike, President Wolfe resigned. “Use my resignation to heal and start talking again,” he said in a statement to the university’s governing board.

It’s important to note the extent to which this goes beyond campus racism. The past three months have seen campus fights over graduate student health care and Planned Parenthood. And just a week before Butler’s hunger strike, Wolfe met with members of “Concerned Student 1950”—an activist group named after the year the first black students attended Missouri—which ended in an impasse. “Wolfe verbally acknowledged that he cared for Black students at the University of Missouri, however he also reported he was ‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus,” said a statement from the group after the meeting. The football team didn’t create the environment for Wolfe’s resignation as much as it supercharged the issue and forced a confrontation that Wolfe was trying to avoid.

That said, it’s clear the immediate lesson from Wolfe’s resignation is the incredible influence of football players in the ecosystem of university life. “So much of the political and social economy of state universities is tied to football, espeecially in big-money conferences like Southeastern Conference, where Mizzou plays,” writes Dave Zirin for the Nation. “The multibillion-dollar college football playoff contracts, the multimillion-dollar coaching salaries … don’t happen without a group of young men willing to take the field.” This is tremendous power, and Monday’s events were the first time we’ve seen it in action.

And now that the seal has been broken, it also won’t be the last. Politics have always been part of sports, and that’s doubly true for the politics of civil rights. At the University of Missouri, you have a largely black football team in solidarity with a black minority on campus, many of whom witnessed—and in some cases, experienced—the events in Ferguson, Missouri, last year. “A number of the black students come from Ferguson, where about two-thirds of the population is black, to Columbia, where nearly 80 percent of residents are white,” notes the New York Times. You see this, for example, with Butler. “I had never seen that many black people mobilized in that way,” he said in reference to Ferguson. “So, it really struck a chord with me, to really have a passion for inspiring and building up my black community.”

Given the real extent to which Ferguson—and the subsequent “Black Lives Matter” movement—has energized and given new urgency to struggles against racism and discrimination, it’s almost no surprise that black students—and black student athletes, in particular—have gotten involved. Especially since, for black students at predominantly white institutions, there is the real problem of racial hostility. Explicit actions like slurs or attacks are often just the tip of the iceberg of routine bias. A recent statement from black alumni of Mizzou is illustrative. “While students at Mizzou, many of us found ourselves protesting similar incidents on campus and we find it highly unacceptable that many of these issues are not only continuing, but have become more pervasive.”

In my first semester at the University of Virginia, the school was rocked by a series of similar incidents—several students of color were harassed with racial slurs. On that score, the first time someone called me a nigger was on campus. Complaints from UVA students then echo those from Mizzou students today:

“The frustration for us is the lack of urgency” on campus, said Gregory Jackson, 20, a junior from Roanoke who is black. “I would have said things were getting better before this year.” Some students said they knew little about the incidents. Others were disgusted but seemed unsure how to express it.

”I just feel like the president isn’t doing anything,” said Leah Whiteside, 20, a junior from Charlottesville who is white, as she played pool Monday at the student center.

Black students are a minority at most selective institutions, and that comes with real challenges for those schools. Racism is one of them. At Missouri, we’ve now seen what can happen when those concerns go unaddressed and when the most powerful students decide to do something about it.

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