Football Players Join With Women-Led Group To Make Real Change At Missouri

Missouri President Tim Wolfe hopes his resignation will lead to healing at the school.

A noose hanging from a tree on Duke's campus. Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers from Oklahoma singing on video about lynching black people. A swastika, made of human feces, drawn in a residential dorm on the Missouri campus. The Yale University president apologizing to minority students last week, saying "we failed you" when it came to the university's response to campus racism. Yes, the protests at Missouri over campus racism, and the demands by black students for the resignation of university president Timothy Wolfe, should come as no surprise. Black college students have protested for years that the country's institutions of higher learning have become hostile spaces for minorities.

But what makes the Missouri protests different is that the black students leading it have joined forces with black Mizzou football players, who are taking the rare step of boycotting football activities after Wolfe's tepid response in the wake of increasing racial tensions at the school. And, after Wolfe's resignation Monday morning, this coalition could have long-reaching effects that affect black students well beyond the Missouri campus, as black college students begin to realize that, by leveraging the power of their sports teams, they can create systemic change in higher education.

The players came to us because they wanted to take the initiative and give their community a better platform to fight injustices.
Ayanna Poole, Concerned Student 1950 member

The drivers of the Missouri protests have been black female students who helped formed Concerned Student 1950, an activist group that refers to the first year black students were admitted to the university. Students Ayanna Poole and Danielle Walker have been out in front demanding change, and Wolfe's ouster.

Walker, leading a "Racism Lives Here" protest on Mizzou's campus Oct. 1, shouted, "Let us be clear that until the administration takes a serious stance on racism on our campus, we will be marching until we are guaranteed justice.

"They say they are for the students. Well, we are the students."

Mizzou graduate student Jonathan Butler took his protest one step further by going on a hunger strike until Wolfe resigned. It was that hunger strike that moved the Mizzou football players to act.

"The players came to us because they wanted to take the initiative and give their community a better platform to fight injustices," Poole told me Monday. "They were first made aware [of the protests] by the hunger strike of Jonathan Butler and didn't want to see another black man suffer."

But even in his resignation, Wolfe appeared clueless as to how systemic change is made. In his news conference, he lamented the fact that black students had turned to hunger strikes and demonstrations, saying, "This is not how change should come about," not understanding that, to be heard, Missouri's black students needed to shout.

On campuses such as Missouri, where the black student population is close to 8 percent, it's natural that black female students should lead the protests. Nationwide, black women lead black men in college attendance, and, according to Think Progress, in 2010, they were 66 percent of all black people who finished a bachelor's degree, 71 percent with a master's and 65 percent with a doctorate.

In contrast, black male students' attendance at flagship universities has slipped to historical lows. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black men represent 7.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in America but only 2.8 percent of undergraduates at public flagship universities.

However, the one place where black men overrepresent on college campuses is on the football team -- at Missouri, 50 percent of the 120 men on the team are black. Yet scholarship agreements that contain warnings about behavior that can show the university in a bad light can also work to silence players' voices.

For my upcoming book on campus racism, I interviewed All-American Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker about being a black football player at a school where campus racism existed. Striker had been one of the prominent voices of protest from the Oklahoma football team when that video surfaced this past March of students singing about lynching African-Americans.

A lot of black athletes are afraid to speak out [about racism on campus] because they think that the university, and their team, will think they're against them," Striker said. "We're not against them, we just want to put the truth out there. ... I'm sure there were people who didn't want me to speak up, but this is bigger than my school, bigger than my sport."

Indeed, coach Bob Stoops quickly backed Striker, and the football team stood in unity behind the black students, just as Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has done with his boycotting players. Over the weekend, Pinkel tweeted a picture of himself with his players, with the statement, "The Mizzou family stands as one." Although that statement was challenged after an anonymous football player told ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy, "As much as we want to say everyone is united, half the team and coaches -- black and white -- are pissed. If we were 9-0, this wouldn't be happening."

A potential cancellation of this week's game against BYU could have cost the university more than $1 million, so Pinkel has a good reason to back the black football players over the white university president. According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, football at Missouri is valued at being worth over $56 million to the university.

And it's in these valuations that students and athletes may have found an invaluable strategy for creating change on college campuses. If an activation that started with black female students, along with the boycott threat of black football players, can topple a university president at Missouri, what could happen if football players and other students at bigger schools such as Texas or Michigan, where football is valued at being worth about $762 million and $732 million, respectively, formed a coalition? If the universities are serious about attacking campus racism, they'll quickly realize this possibility and proactively work to rid their campuses of racism. And that would be a touchdown for black college students everywhere who are tired of dealing with this issue at their schools.

Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller, "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities." His upcoming book, "Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America's Campuses," will be published by St. Martin's Press on Feb. 2.

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