In the last three years the University of Missouri football team has won two SEC East championships, but it is the team’s achievements off the field which will undoubtedly be written about in the history books. Today University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned after the football team boycotted all football activities over the issue of institutional racism at the university. Wolfe’s resignation was the latest chapter in a remarkable few years for the Mizzou football team. The impact of the team’s actions will extend for many years and go well beyond the resignation of one man.
While there are notable differences, athletics often mirror the issues going on in larger society. Many seek athletics as an escape, but eventually the two worlds collide as they did when Jesse Owens won Gold in Nazi Germany, when Jackie Robinson played baseball in the deep South, and when Curt Flood did away with the reserve clause. College athletics and society and large are now undergoing a dramatic transformation which will never be able to be reversed despite the wishes of many of those in the establishment. The Mizzou football team has been at the spearhead of this change in three ways.
The first phase of this change came through the inclusion of all persons of sexual orientation. Other college athletes had come out openly as gay before Missouri’s Michael Sam, but none were as high profile. Sam was not a kicker or a punter who are often, right or wrong, seen as the appendix of the team body rather than a necessary organ. Sam was a starting defensive end, a crucial position which requires a high degree of brute strength and physical violence on almost every play. Furthermore, Sam was undoubtedly good at what he did, winning the honor SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
While it is has already been written about extensively, it is still worth noting that Sam’s sexual orientation was kept a secret by the entire Mizzou football team, players and staff, until Sam himself was ready to disclose his personal life to the world at large. The team maintained Sam’s right to privacy, and after Sam went public the team affirmed Sam’s right to dignity and respect. Notably, the National Football League lacked the same kind of discipline, with anonymous owners bad mouthing Sam’s supposed negative effect on the locker room before Sam was even drafted.
Sam’s NFL career has ultimately not panned out, but with his announcement and the support for his team a model was set as to how gay athletes can and should be treated. Sam and the Mizzou football team cleared a path that many others will follow in coming years.
The second phase of this change has come in the latest effort to address racial injustice in America.
To many racism was dealt with in the 1960’s with Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., among others, and the passage of legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For others, those with more intimate knowledge of the economics and more complicated dynamics of racism, the problem has only grown worse.
The difference between the two groups was highlighted with the shooting of Trayvon Martin. For some the case was resolved once the Justice Department determined that officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting in Martin. For the others the shooting itself was not the issue, but instead the system of oppression and institutionalized racism which led blacks to be fined, taxed, shot at by police, and imprisoned at a much higher rate than their white neighbors.
Some want the discussion to be race to be over, others argue that the discussion, and subsequent changes, have only begun. For a while both sides have been in a virtual tie. Today Missouri football may have broken that tie. With their boycott the team forced those who did not want to talk about race to at least address the issue, even if they ultimately disagreed with the stance of the team. Those who just wanted everyone to get along and watch their Saturday football had to all of the sudden think about race again.
Not everyone agrees with the team, and there are some signs that not everyone within the team even agrees on matters of race. In addition, Wolfe’s resignation will most certainly not rid the University of Missouri system of racism.
But that is not the point.
The team was not seeking consensus, and it is far too much to expect the team to rid a college of systematic racism which has been built up over hundreds of years. What was accomplished was much more powerful – a real conversation.
With their boycott that began last night the Missouri football team gave power to a minority voice that has been begging for this new conversation about race. Before the team boycotted Michael Sam noted that the protest amounted to two tents and one reporter in the middle of the Mizzou campus. After the Mizzou football team posted a photo on Twitter and stated they were boycotting football activities the protest was covered by every major national news outlet and included dozens of tents, hundreds of protesters (both white and black), and faculty. Even if many want to ignore race, and want to claim that racial oppression is a mythical invention of the left, they now have to talk about it, and that is where the change starts.
The third phase of change will likely come through changing the economics of college athletics, and perhaps society as a whole. It is worth noting that while the Mizzou football boycott was focused on issues of racial injustice, it is also grew out of a concern over the treatment of graduate students who were recently deprived of health insurance benefits by the administration.
College athletics now is a symbol of the larger economy in which wealth is concentrated with just a few in power while the majority are restricted, both legally and systematically, from advancing upward. It is a a system in which “student athletes” produce abundant profits for others but have no ability to enjoy those profits themselves. It is a system in which Leonard Fournette generates tens of millions in profits for a public university, and yet is not allowed to sell his own signature.
A group of athletes at Northwestern University attempted to overturn this system through the courts by asking a judge to declare them employees, with the right to unionize, as opposed to “student athletes” taking part in a sport for fun. Those students lost going up against universities willing to spend millions in legal fees to make sure they did not lose the ability to make athletes play sports for a fraction of their actual value.
In the last few days the Mizzou football team demonstrated that the court system is completely unnecessary. Consider the fact that it took two days of no football for a university to cave and effectively fire their head executive. It may not happen tomorrow, or even over the next year, but some day soon the athletes at Ohio State, or Alabama, or LSU, or Stanford, or perhaps all of them at once will threaten to not play until they are given the right negotiate for pay. When that happens the persons in charge will have no choice but to cave if they want to retain their billion dollar television contracts and other revenue (see ticket sales, merchandise, alumni donations) generated by sports. The Mizzou football team effectively called the bluff of colleges, and everyone in the world has seen it.
In the social media world the formal process of unionization and collective bargaining will no longer be needed. All that will be needed for college athletes, and workers in every field, to unite is common cause and and the will to use the power they already have. College athletes will be paid soon, and the working class will soon be paid a greater share of the profits they produce for businesses.
Simply put, the Mizzou boycott is the Rosa Parks moment of our era.