Missouri situation shows power of sports to bring enormous change
By Pat Forde4 hours ago
Yahoo Sports | 2015-11-09T17:23:41Z
The power of sports as a change agent?
We’re seeing it in real time at the University of Missouri.
For several weeks, racial tensions had simmered on campus after a couple of incidents. When protest over the situation was brought to the feet of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe on Oct. 10 on Homecoming Day – literally, someone got in front of the vehicle he was riding in during the parade – he didn’t handle it well and the temperature was nudged higher. Last week, an African-American student began a hunger strike seeking Wolfe’s ouster, and the heat increased incrementally again.
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation from office Monday. (AP)
But what brought it to a nationwide boil?
A 4-5 football team.
When the Missouri Tigers announced over the weekend that they would not practice, would not lift weights, would not watch film and will not play a game until Wolfe resigned, this exploded into a hot-button national story. National news organizations flocked to campus and set up shop, with live shots against a backdrop of a protestor tent city next to the school’s iconic columns. Not ideal optics for the school president to contend with.
And by mid-morning Monday in central Missouri, Wolfe was done contending. He was instead tendering his resignation.
No way that happens this fast without the leverage the football team provided. They were big men on campus, indeed. College athletes should feel empowered by what happened at Missouri – although with great power also comes great responsibility to use it wisely and appropriately.
As is so often the case, if you want to bring attention to your school, put the football team front and center. Usually that means serving as the social hub of the university, a unifying element for students and alums. In this case, it’s something far different.
But it was a stroke of PR genius by the Concerned Student 1950 protest group, and I’m heartened by the players’ willingness to get involved in a major campus issue. They’re not just there to run, lift weights and smash into student-athletes from rival schools; they should be learning about the larger world, testing their belief systems and, occasionally, challenging authority.
What’s happening at Mizzou right now should be viewed in the context of what happened recently in Ferguson, Mo., less than two hours from campus. This Civil War border state, with a complex and occasionally distressing racial history, has become a national petri dish for examining race relations. And good for the football players for actually paying attention and jumping into the dish.
(It’s also appropriately cynical to wonder whether this eruption of social conscience would have happened last year, when Missouri was 7-2 at this point and on its way to a second consecutive Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title. This year’s Tigers are mired in a four-game losing streak and in danger of not earning a bowl bid.)
I’m also impressed by the athletic administration’s response to what may be every college coach’s biggest fear – a player revolt. Coach Gary Pinkel, who was in high school in northern Ohio when four students were shot dead at Kent State and who went to college there, has publicly supported his players. So has athletic director Mack Rhoades.
They resisted any authoritarian urge to squash this nascent rebellion, scary as it must be from their vantage point. If anything, they’re going to the playbook Pat Fitzgerald employed at Northwestern last year when the Wildcats voted on whether to unionize: publicly support the movement as a great learning and bonding experience.
Pinkel is 63 years old, but he’s shown admirable enlightenment in the latter stages of his accomplished tenure at Missouri. He handled the coming out of gay player Michael Sam to his teammates prior to the 2013 season in a thoughtful and supportive way, helping make an unprecedented situation a positive experience. Now he’s acknowledging the concerns his players have about the campus racial environment – and the administrative response to those concerns – in a smart manner as well.
This isn’t the Bob Knight Era, when the Feared Authority Figure Coach could storm around threatening to yank scholarships of anyone who doesn’t properly submit to program dogma. It doesn’t work that way anymore. The coach-player dynamic has changed, at least in terms of public perception.
College athletes in revenue sports are seen in many quarters as exploited and undercompensated while their schools make millions off their backs. College coaches thus are scrambling to show how much they care for their players – up to and apparently including supporting their potential boycott of practice and a game Saturday against BYU. It’s a tricky PR/recruiting line to walk. (On some level, Pinkel and the university as a whole have to be cringing at the damage to Missouri’s ability to attract minority students with this going on.)
The added degree of difficulty in this instance is appraising the value of the cause. Fasting student Jonathan Butler and Concerned Student 1950 may be doing heroic work exposing major problems at Mizzou – or they may be opportunistically inflating a couple of somewhat vague grievances into a bigger issue than it really is. That’s an open and vigorous debate at present, and there will be some who say Wolfe’s resignation was the case of a media-savvy and sensationalist tail wagging the university dog.
But if a student was willing to risk his life in order to evoke change, and the football team was willing to get involved, then the coach and school had to respond with appropriate seriousness. It’s time for introspection, and ultimately was time for quick corrective action.
It looks like the BYU game Saturday can now go on, but as an alumnus, I don’t care a whole lot about that. I do care about the campus environment and image – especially since my oldest child is a current student-athlete at the school. Mizzou didn’t have a national reputation for racism in my time, and I sure don’t want it to have one in my son’s time.
I do recall something that happened roughly 30 years ago, though the details are a bit sketchy now. I briefly attended a party at the Kappa Alpha fraternity at the University of Missouri with a group of friends who lived in one of the campus dorms. Among our group was a track athlete named Chris Sylvan, an African-American. That’s why our stay at the party was brief – we were told, in roundabout but firm terms, that our group was not welcome at the party.
I was completely ignorant of fraternity politics and the infamous racial reputation that particular fraternal orders have in some locales. I didn’t know what we were walking into, and I’m not sure anyone else did, either. I don’t think we were attempting to upset the natural order of things, but a black man at a KA party in the 1980s was an interesting sociological experiment.
Anyway, there were some angry words from us to the party hosts, but Chris was the calmest one among us and encouraged us to leave without turning it into a serious confrontation. I remember being quite surprised such a thing could and would happen, but there was no fallout from that incident. We fumed for a while afterward, then moved on to do something else, somewhere else – I have no recollection of what or where.
That was my one experience with racism in four years as a student at Mizzou. It was one too many, but I never considered my alma mater a hostile or unwelcome place for a diverse student population.
Stronger than my recollection of the frat party incident is my recall of meeting Melvin Smith and Robert Steele, black students from St. Louis who lived across the hall from me in Stafford Hall my freshman year of 1983-84. I remember hearing amazing music coming from their dorm room, inquiring about it and being introduced to Run-DMC. I remember some great conversations with them about race – in America, in Missouri and on campus.
Mizzou exposed a kid from Colorado Springs, Colo., to a greater diversity than I’d experienced in my life to that point. There was some volatility and controversy – big protests urging divestment of school funds in racially divided South Africa – but that’s part of college. Students are going to find things to protest about, often with very good reason.
The hope today is that Missouri improves itself by going through this current controversy. The fact that the football team immersed itself in the controversy brought it to a boil nationally. That isn’t a bad thing.
It’s OK for an athletic team to be known for something other than its win-loss record. It’s OK for jocks to flex their campus muscles for something other than athletic glory.
Amechi Brief Comment:
The resignation of Tim Wolfe, the University of Missouri president in obedience to the demands of the Concernd Students 1950 is a monumental historical achievement in the annals of American and world historical struggles for human rights and social justice and the names of all the leading participants, which include everyone who participated in anyway to further the struggles, would be written in gold. And may God continue to guide and bless our further struggles.