Social justice activists are celebrating the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri after a strike by the football team — but is it really a win?
Long accustomed to flexing their muscles on the field of play, The University of Missouri’s football team has found a new source of strength — political muscle. On November 9th, Tim Wolfe, the President of the University of Missouri system, resigned after a strike initiated by a group of thirty-two, mostly black players, who were soon backed by the entirety of the University of the Missouri football program, as ESPN reports.
Pressure had been building on Tim Wolfe for months. In September, the president of the Missouri Students’ Association, Payton Head, who is black, reported being called racial slurs while on campus, as the campus paper Missourian details. “Some guys in the back of a pickup just started yelling the ‘N-word’ at me,” Head wrote on Facebook. “For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.”
More racist incidents followed. On October 5th, a drunk white student disrupted a play rehearsal by shouting the N-word from the stage, as this report uploaded to Facebook documents. On October 10th, black student protesters blocked a homecoming parade car in which University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, was riding — Wolfe made no effort to acknowledge them whatsoever. Video footage shows the car’s driver attempting to drive around the protesters, making contact with at least one of them. Police eventually cleared the roadway.
Finally, in late October an unidentified student used feces to draw a swastika on a bathroom wall, as this post on Twitter outlines. To many students, this abominable action — coupled with the administration’s inadequate response — was the final straw.
On November 2nd, University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler (his profile given here by CNN), announced a hunger strike in protest of the administration’s lackluster response to the racist incidents. He explained that he would not eat until Tim Wolfe resigned. Six days into Butler’s hunger strike, there was still no word from the President Wolfe.
HAND-OFF TO THE FOOTBALL TEAM
The Daily Beast reported that Anthony Sherrils, a sophomore safety on the football team, met with Butler on Saturday, November 8th. Almost immediately thereafter, Sherrils made a declaration via Twitter that athletes of color on the Missouri football team “will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed.”
The next day, the University of Missouri’s football coach, Gary Pinkel, announced his support for the striking players. “The Mizzou family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.” The tweet included a picture of stony-faced players in University of Missouri hoodies and T-shirts.
— Coach Gary Pinkel (@GaryPinkel) November 8, 2015
The football players’ strike, announced on Saturday, was apparently a more persuasive argument than Butler’s week-long hunger strike — by Monday, Wolfe had stepped down. Following his resignation, Butler resumed eating and the players announced on Tuesday they would begin practice for their Saturday match-up against Brigham Young University.
The Game Is Over, But Who Won?
Social justice activists at the University of Missouri and around the country celebrated Wolfe’s departure. Yet even they acknowledge that Wolfe’s resignation is only a first step — not a lasting victory. So who is the real winner here?
The loser, at least, appears clear. Tim Wolfe’s stuttering, desultory approach to black student activists by all accounts precipitated the crisis. According to the Huffington Post, in his resignation, Wolfe took “full responsibility for the inaction.” He is now jobless, and though he may be feted as a victim by the conservative news media, will remain a pariah for some time to come.
According to some, another loser is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Sonny Vaccaro, a retired Nike and Adidas executive, said in an interview with Yahoo! Sports that student-athlete activism is the NCAA’s “deepest fear.” Collegiate athletes “have always had power on campus, it’s just rarely channeled. Here it was channeled and you see there was enough power to compel a university president to resign.”
Simply put, the University of Missouri football players demonstrated exactly how persuasive money can be. As news of the strike spread, journalists at NBC Sport quickly calculated the cost to the University of Missouri system: $1 million, to be paid to Brigham Young University (BYU), the University of Missouri’s next opponent on the gridiron, if Mizzou were unable to play. And that was just the fine — all of the potential revenue generated by a home football game would have vanished into thin air as well.
For the sake of perspective, Tim Wolfe’s annual salary was $459,000, according to the St. Louis-Dispatch. That’s less than half of what the University of Missouri stood to lose in a single day. (Side note: the highest paid employee of University of Missouri? The football coach of course. Gary Pinkel will earn $4.02 million in 2015, according to Fox Sport).
The enduring fiction of collegiate sports, propagated by the NCAA and other major players in our culture, is the concept of amateurism: that college athletes are scholars first and athletes second, with no rights to any compensation for their athletic endeavors beyond their scholarships. The tension in this position has been exposed before. This past August, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declined to rule on a coalition of Northwestern University football players attempting to unionize, according to TIME. In 2014, college football and basketball players settled a lawsuit with EA Sports over the use of their likenesses in video games, according to ESPN. The NCAA-sponsored myth of amateurism is fraying.
With its decisive show of political might, the University of Missouri football team has demonstrated where real power lies. The fiery student activists and lethargic university administration were locked in a stand-off, with shock and indignation in one corner and stolid institutional might in the other, both on a collision course to conflagration. But with one simple statement, the football team was able to instigate significant change in the space of two days.
It’s clearer now more than ever that although student-athletes aren’t paid, they hold the purse strings. It’s a paradox that has built an expansive empire for the NCAA, one that it will fight tooth and nail to preserve. But with this display by Mizzou’s players, athletes across the country are realizing their might — or more appropriately, their potential. While the true extent of their power remains to be seen, the events at the University of Missouri point towards one, undeniable fact: this is only the beginning.
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