For several weeks, the flames of racial tension were evident at the University of Missouri. They intensified one disturbing incident at a time, fanned by aloof campus leadership, not taken seriously until students and faculty resorted to anger and protest.
Yet this movement didn’t become a national controversy until a 4-5 football team stood up and utilized its most untapped resource: the spotlight. In big-time, big-money athletics, the center stage is always available and not just for the big game. There’s a power to rouse the masses that doesn’t exist many other places. People care, for whatever reason. There’s influence in the obsession that sports figures often choose to ignore.
For all the ugliness that had occurred at Missouri — a swastika drawn with human feces on a dorm’s new white wall; repeated racial slurs directed at African American student body president Payton Head as he walked on campus; a drunken white student publicly shouting the N-word at members of the Legion of Black Collegians; Tim Wolfe, the president of the Missouri system, ignoring protesters during a homecoming parade and allowing the car he rode in to move forward and allegedly bump a protester; and on and on — it took the football team to complete the process of scaring the university into action.
Graduate student Jonathan Butler was on a hunger strike. A tent city had been set up. Some professors staged walkouts from their classes. But for all their efforts to oust Wolfe for his feeble leadership and spark change, they needed the spotlight. Once 32 black football players representing this school from the almighty Southeastern Conference decided to get involved, weeks of struggle turned into resolution.
The players took their stand Saturday. The next day, Coach Gary Pinkel and the entire team announced they would stand behind those players and refuse to practice or play until Wolfe was gone. By Monday, Wolfe had resigned, and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he would leave at the end of the year.
In sports, teams harp on finishing. Regardless of the difficulty they encounter in a game, they aim to outlast the opponent and play their best at the end. It’s safe to say the Missouri football team, amid a middling season, just executed its finest finish.
For a pleasant change, a group of college athletes and coaches left the cocoon and reacted to an issue affecting their campus. They didn’t just stick to sports, which is the ignorant directive that many offer to separate the diversion from the important stuff. But the sports world is merely a microcosm of the so-called real world, and issues can intersect with the field of play. Thankfully, we seem to be in an era in which sports figures refuse to simply watch society pass by until it’s safe to play again.
It was easier for the Missouri football team to take a stand because it came late to the protest, after significant work had been done to set up a political battle that Wolfe was destined to lose. Pinkel probably wouldn’t have let the entire team protest if he knew he was making a decision that would put his job in jeopardy. But that doesn’t make the gesture any less important.
The threat of the Tigers not playing BYU on Saturday served as a huge pressure point. If Missouri had canceled the game, it reportedly would’ve forced the Tigers to pay BYU $1 million to cancel. Even more costly would’ve been the prolonged embarrassment for the university as the national media descended upon campus and began telling the story of a school divided amid chaos.
During a tearful farewell press conference, Wolfe acknowledged the spotlight had become too great. Now the world could see the anger that he failed to recognize for weeks.
“To our students from Concerned Students 1950 [the organization leading the protest], to our grad students, football players and other students, the frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don’t doubt it for a second,” Wolfe said.
Before the football team joined the protest, it was still possible for Wolfe to downplay the ugliness occurring in Columbia, Mo. Now, it was undeniable, and the controversy included the intense passion of sports. The issue was too hot to mitigate. Change had to occur — and quickly.
For decades, sports figures have been criticized for their unwillingness to engage in social issues. Most notably, Michael Jordan was shunned as the typical reticent, entrepreneurial superstar after his infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” reaction 25 years ago to explain his refusal to endorse Harvey Gantt over Jesse Helms in a North Carolina senatorial race. Whether fair or not, Jordan became the poster child for the spoiled athlete enjoying a more comfortable environment and forgetting about the impact of past athlete activists such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown.
But like everyone else, athletes are a product of the era in which they live. Jordan’s heyday was during a more prosperous, self-centered time in American history. We’re currently in a climate of serious, high-profile, polarizing racial tension. Athletes are speaking up accordingly.
Three years ago, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, beginning a series of unnerving killings involving African Americans and authorities that have become racially charged issues. The NBA ousted Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after it was revealed that he was recorded making disparaging remarks.
Athletes have reflected the public outrage. The St. Louis Rams’ wide receivers made a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture before a game to protest the decision in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict a police officer who shot Michael Brown. Basketball players wore black T-shirts with “I Can’t Breathe” written in white letters over their pregame warmup clothing to protest Eric Garner being choked to death by a police officer in New York. LeBron James, a superstar among superstars, has become the most socially aware professional athlete of his time, lending his voice and money to several major issues.
But it’s a new wrinkle to see a college football team display its power. When NCAA President Mark Emmert was leading the University of Washington, he often talked about college athletes as “the gateway to a perception” at any school. Sometimes, he lamented that sports made up two percent of the university’s budget and student body at Washington — but garnered 99 percent of the attention.
The Missouri Tigers showed that major college athletes have much more influence than they realize. They can’t be ignored; our sporting obsession dictates it. Such power requires great responsibility and must be used intelligently and sparingly. But these athletes have a hammer.
As we learned the past few days, they’re not afraid to use it anymore.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.