A group of 32 black football players at the University of Missouri — acting with the blessing of their white coach — announced Sunday that they would refuse to play or practice until UM system President Tim Wolfe resigned. The football players had been angered by Wolfe’s failure to respond to a series of racist incidents on campus, and their boycott threat was apparently backed by many of their white teammates.
As of Sunday afternoon, Wolfe was refusing to resign. This morning, after an emergency executive session of the university system’s Board of Curators, his decision had changed. The president is gone, the team will be back at practice this afternoon, and Mizzou will play its next game as scheduled against BYU, avoiding a $1 million penalty had it forfeited the game.
The remarkable incident raises an awful lot of questions for which answers are difficult:
1.) Was the boycott justified? I’ve never set foot on the Mizzou campus and have no idea what the environment there might be. You probably don’t either. However, it’s hard to believe that football players would have taken such a dramatic step unless they shared a strong, widespread sentiment among the black student body that something had gone awry. It’s also pretty evident that Wolfe had failed for weeks to take the concerns of black students seriously, doing little to meet with them, hear them out and take action.
Here’s how Koran Addo, who has been covering the story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, described the sentiment expressed to him by black Mizzou students during an interview with NPR:
“This is a very segregated campus already. Black students kind of stick together. They stick to each other. They don’t feel welcome in the overall community. They say that they can’t even walk near the fraternities on campus because racial slurs are being directed at them at all times. They say they can’t go to certain restaurants on campus or even closely off campus because, you know, they feel this sort of hostility toward them. So it’s a general feeling of black students feeling unwelcome on the Mizzou campus. And their concerns have not really been heard by the administration. The administration is aloof. The administration is not taking their concerns seriously.”
2.) What does it say when 30 kids on football scholarships can bring down a university president in just a day? It says that football is king of the campus and wields way too much influence, but that’s something we’ve known and pretty much accepted for a long time now. At the University of Georgia, for example, the embattled Mark Richt makes several times the salary of his nominal boss, university president Jere Morehead, and until recently at least, Richt had considerably more political clout as well. Even UGA’s defensive and offensive coordinators make more money than Morehead. And as the AJC’s Matt Kempner reported this weekend, “(UGA’s) football program generated nearly $87 million in revenue in the last fiscal year, far above its $26 million in expenses.” That buys a lot of influence.
3.) The real impact of the Mizzou story is that football players — the Saturday heroes, the men who make the dazzling runs, the bone-crunching tackles and humiliating fumbles, the men who suffer the knee damage and concussions — actually decided to use football’s clout for their own purposes. I suspect that a lot of people who see nothing at all wrong with football’s dominant role in university culture will now be yelling “How dare they!?,” outraged that mere players have leveraged its prominence for something other than a million-dollar raise or a new indoor practice facility.
4.) Basically, the Mizzou players have realized that they have market power, and they are doing what American culture tells them to do with such power. If the school is going to use them to build its brand, fill its stadium, attract students, generate tens of millions of dollars in TV revenue, grease alumni donations and make other contributions that far outweigh the value of the education they are given, well, there’s a thing or two they want in return, such as the basic respect of being heard.
5.) We’ll also probably hear a lot from the “How dare they!” crowd about the contracts that student athletes sign in return for their scholarships, and how Mizzou players violated that contract by threatening a boycott. But again, you don’t hear that talk much when a coach abandons his team for a richer contract elsewhere, even after he recruited players to the first school with the promise that he would be there to lead them. And you don’t hear it when players are stripped of their scholarships because the school needs it for a younger, more promising prospect. What we’re seeing in the Mizzou case and a few other examples is the beginning of a resetting of the power differential between the schools and coaches on one hand and those whom they recruit as players on the other. And it’s long overdue.