University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe announced his resignation this morning amid race relations scandal. The Missouri football team united amid strained race relations on campus and was prepared to boycott every single game until this man was removed at President.
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.
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.)
Mediaoutrage– Right fist in the air! I love to see our people taking action in the face of oppression and racism to tear the system down. Dope! This is the blueprint right here. BOYCOTT…..