By TESS SHEETS
In the wake of the recent racially-divisive incidents on campus at the University of Missouri-Columbia and the subsequent student protests, the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, and the chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, stepped down from their positions on Nov. 9. The resignations are a result of a slew of discriminatory acts that have taken hold of the campus throughout recent years, and ones that have now been illuminated in just the past few weeks with more coverage than ever.
A flow of these recent incidences of racial abuse began with an African-American student who was called derogatory names, which then escalated to threatening comments made to black students regarding the Ku Klux Klan, and finally, a drawing of a swastika scrawled in human feces on the wall of a new dormitory. The acts forced some students to take a stand against their idle administration.
Some took action in the form of peaceful protests while others chose a more drastic route (one student, Jonathon Butler, embarked on a hunger strike on Nov. 2 that would continue until President Wolfe stepped down from his position). While protests from students as well as faculty members lasted for weeks, a turning point in the progress came when the Mizzou football team saddled up and joined the cause. By refusing to participate in any football-related activities until Wolfe’s resignation, the team called national attention to the incidents and to the administration’s deficiencies, which resulted in Wolfe’s resignation within only 24 short hours of the team’s public hiatus.
A tweet from the Mizzou head coach indicated that the decision was a unanimous one. “The Mizzou family stands as one,” head coach Gary Pinkel wrote. “We are united. We are behind our players.”
In an interview with sports columnist Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, defensive lineman Eddie Serrano similarly defended his team’s actions.
“We are the future, the youth,” Serrano said. “It’s good to see us standing for what is right. There’s lot of controversial with the whole incident, because it’s something new, it’s revolutionary, a lot of people are going to reject it– [the fact that] a lot of people are angry that the football team went on strike. A couple years down the road, the picture will be painted more vividly.”
Although historically athletes have not been seen as the common ringleaders of social change, in light of this event, the Mizzou players bring up a significant idea in this whole debacle: athletes serve as a very important position in their university’s reputation.
Typically highlighted as a the face of the school, student-athletes, especially football players, have a large influence over a wide range of people– from students to faculty to fans across the country.
And while the team at Mizzou can’t be solely credited for the success of this protest, it is impossible not to recognize the huge impact that they were able to drum up in a short span of time. An organized group like this refusing to accept the deficiencies by their school’s authority is essentially them refusing to be the school’s image of not only athleticism, but also of the perfect student experience, the model that every university strives to convey.
But, while this particular event caught a lot of attention, this isn’t the first time athletes have used their power of popularity to influence change.
In 1968, 14 African-American athletes at Wyoming University wore black armbands during a game against Brigham Young University in protest of BYU’s refusal to allow African-Americans to hold leadership positions within the university. Though the athletes were banned from the team and lost their $1.1 million lawsuit against the school, their mark of defiance continued to influence colleges around the country, starting with San Jose College, where players wore their own black armbands in their game against Wyoming, and later Stanford University, where the President, Kenneth Pitzer, proposed a “right of conscience” to the athletic program at his university, stating that athletes had the right to boycott a school event if he or she felt it was “personally repugnant.”
Further, in 1972, football players at the University of Washington delayed the second half of a game until someone was willing to announce over the PA system that the team was in opposition to the war in Vietnam.
So, though the Mizzou football protest is not without precedents, it is clear that the sports world has produced a growing influence on social issues, and it is met with alarming positive changes both on and off college campuses.
With the significant power of the press willing to jump at every inkling of controversy, there is little a student-athlete couldn’t do without news coverage in some form or another. That being said, it wouldn’t be surprising if the world began to see more and more sports teams making themselves the focus of issues within their school and community to elicit changes.
Heads up, athletes, you have more power than you think.