By Wesley R. Bishop and Andrew McGregor
This weekend the University of Missouri, or “Mizzou” as it’s commonly called, became the latest front in the ongoing national movement against racism. Following a string of steady and increasingly hostile acts of hate, Mizzou’s football players joined a campus wide protest, refusing to participate in athletic events until University President Tim Wolfe steps down or is removed from office. The demand follows months of mounting tensions as student activists grew impatient over President Wolfe’s failure to release some statement denouncing racism on the campus. In this post we want to explore the conditions at Mizzou and in Missouri that contributed to the current situation, adding historical context to the actions taken by the Mizzou football team.
The Cultural History of Missouri
The state of Missouri has a complex cultural history. Much of that history is tied to its historic involvement in various controversies, compromises, and skirmishes surrounding the issue of slavery. Dating back to the 19th century, Missouri has been at the center of numerous debates including the Dred Scott case and Bleeding Kansas. The battles along the border with Kansas over the issue of slavery reflected the state’s southern and slaveholding heritage. The ensuing Civil War, and Missouri’s position as a slave-holding, Union state further contribute to Missouri’s liminal position between midwestern and southern.
The Border War skirmishes are, perhaps, the most influential of these on the state’s current culture, especially in relation to Mizzou athletics. The fierce fighting of the 1850s became a permanent cultural component of Missouri and Kansas in the 1890s as football took over college campuses. The once bloody rivalry between Missouri and Kansas was reinvigorated on the gridiron. Indeed, the rivalry even adopted the Border War name (though it was briefly changed to the Border Showdown).
This rivalry, while fairly innocent on the surface, has become the fundamental pedagogy of many Kansas and Missouri fans and residents. It places the Civil War and Bleeding Kansas as central historic events to their identity. The focus of this cultural pedagogy is generally the political and military engagements, obscuring their racial subtext. Partisans of both sides cite history to boost their team, causing the war to be fought over and over in the minds of sports fans. Although the rivalry is no longer contested, the feud continues to play out in local and regional politics. Take for example, the close quarters of the Kansas City metropolitan area, which straddles the stateline and is home to the vast majority of KU and Mizzou alumni. State and civic leaders continue to fan the flames of the border war as they compete head-to-head with sweetheart deals for businesses to create jobs in their state.
This rivalry and constant competition has asserted Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War as central to the identity of Missouri and, for much of its history, Mizzou athletics. Because of this, allegiances and debates over the conflict continue to permeate the state’s cultural life. What’s unsettling to many about this, is the fact that, according to most historians, Missouri was on the wrong side of this history. Thus, at least according to Kansans, their state and athletic pride echoes a commitment to preserving slavery. To be sure, it is unfair to paint Missourians and Mizzou fans as Confederate sympathizers and white supremacists that continue to fight for The Lost Cause, especially because by the time of the Civil War, Missouri elected to remain in the Union.
Understanding this cultural history is important when looking at Missouri and their football team because it highlights the liminality of the state and its struggle for a cohesive identity. While much of the rhetoric surrounding the college football rivalry points to its troubled racial past, there is also tension between its southern roots and its Union allegiance. Like the University of Oklahoma, Missouri once viewed itself as Southern, frequently scheduling games against teams in the old Southwest Conference. Culturally, schools like Arkansas and Texas were peer institutions. Conference allegiance and the security of the Big Eight, however, forced change decades earlier than at traditional SEC and SWC colleges. Once common, Mizzou stopped using the Confederate flag and singing Dixie at half time in the 1950s. In 1958 the University of Missouri became the last Big Eight institution to integrate its football team. After integration, gratuitous uses of the n-word to describe opposing black players began to slowly fade away. Like it had during the Civil War, Missouri chose to align itself with the north and slowly shed itself of the lingering aspects of its Southern past.
Most states in the South don’t have that same tension. They are firmly Southern and resisted change much longer. Big-time programs like Alabama and Texas waited until the 1970s to integrate. Likewise, Ole Miss continues to struggle with it’s Confederate imagery. Missouri compromised. It allied with its midwestern peers, but clung tight to its Border War heritage.
On campus this tension continues in part because of the geographic diversity of the student body. Mizzou remains close to 89% white, with African-Americans making up only 7% of its student population. Over the past several years, Mizzou, like many universities, has targeted out-of-state students for their extra tuition dollars. As a result, a third of the students now come from out-of-state. Many come from the suburban areas surrounding cities like Chicago. Another third of Mizzou students come from the state’s two major cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. The final third are from rural Missouri. This results in a clash of cultures and experiences between urban and rural, in and out-of-state, as well as along racial lines. Some suggest that this geographic and cultural “diversity” have had an important impact on the current situation at Missouri. It is certainly too simplistic to point to this cultural history and the assimilation of different student populations to the state’s peculiarities as the sole reason for the events at the University of Missouri, but it is important for understanding their context. Missouri’s conflicted Southern and Union heritage, it’s representation of the pro-slavery side of the Border War, and its split population are fertile grounds for confused and conflicted identities.
Racism and Protest on Campus
Over the course of the fall semester, there has been numerous racist acts on the University of Missouri campus. These acts of racism were neither isolated nor casual, and as they continued student movements formed to bring more awareness to the issues, pushback against racism, and call out administration for slow and inadequate responses. Beyond just these racist events, however, are other student movements seeking to improve the living, learning, and working conditions of students. Seen as a whole, these movements have sought to systematically identify administrative failures and call for action.
As early as August, graduate student at Mizzou began organizing to protest changes in their health care coverage. They organized and issued a list of demands before later staging a walkout and unionizing in early September. This was joined by news that administrators had ignored survey responses and student voices for a well over a decade. Shortly thereafter, an Association of American Universities report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct brought more concerns to bear. Rallies supporting Planned Parenthood and drawing attention to racism joined these events. The revelation that student voices had been ignored for years inspired further activism, turning the campus into a tinderbox only waiting for a spark to explode.
Racism became a major issue following September 11th, when the student body president, an African-American male, was harassed by being called a racial slur by white men in a pickup truck as he walked home. It took a week for university officials to respond to the incident, leading many to claim officials were disengaged and uninterested in issues of white supremacy. On October 5th a similar action occurred when students in the Legion of Black Collegians, while rehearsing a play in a public area, were called racial slurs by a white male on campus. Although university officials responded more quickly than they had to the September 11th incident, many on campus were unimpressed with the reaction. Five days later, protesters blocked the annual homecoming parade, specifically targeting President Wolfe’s vehicle. Chanting that matters of racial equality needed to be addressed now, the protestors were threatened with arrest and pepper spray while being forcibly removed from the parade route as Wolfe’s vehicle sped past. The demonstration was a result of being denied a meeting with Wolfe after the October 5th event.
At every step along the way reactionary sentiment to the protesters has been predictable. As the Washington Post has shown, whites, both on campus and off, have criticized the protesters with being out-of-line. “If you are not comfortable at MU,” one commenter said, “please leave.” Also, “This racist issue is sure getting old and tiresome.”
On October 24th, the incidents reached a new level when a swastika was drawn on the side of a student dormitory using human feces. Again, the lack of an overt commitment to combating white supremacy on campus led to a new round of protests. Finally fed up with inaction and empty rhetoric, one of the student leaders, graduate student Jonathan L. Butler, began a hunger strike on November 4th. Stating he would starve himself until a list of demands were met, Butler demanded that one be the removal of Wolfe as president.
Football Takes Action
Despite the dramatic nature of these events, and the tireless organizing and demonstrations of activists like Butler, it was not until this weekend, when thirty members of the football team initiated a strike, that the events at Mizzou began to be nationally recognized. The strike threatens the ability of the football program to compete in its upcoming games, embarrassing the university and potentially costing it millions of dollars. On Sunday, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel tweeted that he, and the remainder of the team, stood in solidarity both with the original thirty players, as well as the rest of the campus protesting white supremacy and acts of racism.
Athletes are important allies on a campus like Mizzou’s. The football team is roughly 50% black, and athletes likely comprise a significant portion of the 7% of African-Americans on campus. The football players are illustrating a keen awareness of sports as an engine of social change. From proposed boycotts to outspoken athletes, sports have long been used as a platform to help enact change. The near-boycott of the 1968 Olympics by African-American athletes is perhaps the most well-known example. While Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) was one of the only athletes that went through with the boycott, others such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith staged powerful demonstrations that continue to resonate.
Similarly, in the sport of college football, the Black 14 of the University of Wyoming sought to protest policies of the Mormon Church in a game against BYU in 1969. The main issue was the fact that the church refused to recognize and admit African-Americans to their lay clergy. Wyoming Head Coach Lloyd Eaton wouldn’t allow any demonstrations because he had a rule against them. Citing his rule, he promptly kicked the 14 African-American players off of the team. There are conflicting reports on the exact details of the events, but ultimately the players were not restored to the team and left Wyoming. Eaton displayed the classic, hard-nosed, conservative attitude of most football coaches by refusing to compromise or budge.
Although Eaton was obstinate, other institutions took notice. The President of Stanford University announced that the school would refuse to engage in any “intercollegiate competition with institutions sponsored by the Mormon Church.” As the pressure mounted, the Mormon Church eventually amended its policies. They announced that they were opening up the Mormon priesthood to African-Americans in 1978, ending the controversy and protest.
While the Black 14 contributed to an ultimately successful campaign to enact change in the Mormon Church, it had devastating effects on the Wyoming campus. The controversial handling of the protest and the dismissal of the athletes, forced Eaton out of his job by 1971. The Wyoming football program — who was undefeated at the time of the incident — also suffered, losing 26 of their next 38 games. The Wyoming story, although different from Mizzou’s protest in several important ways, illustrates the tenuous situation that administrators, coaches, and athletes are in during these events. Eaton lost his job, the athletes lost their scholarships, and the entire program took a hit. Even so, in the end the protest did help bring about change.
At Missouri, there is even more at stake, because, unlike Wyoming, it is a big-time football program The University of Missouri belongs to the Southeastern Conference. The SEC is heralded by many as the top college football conference in the country. Its massive TV deal pays out tens of millions of dollars annually to each of its 14 member schools. This payout reflects the attention and special position that the SEC holds in college football discourse, and is why the Mizzou football strike carries weight.
Not only does it bring increased media attention, it also threatens the university’s image and finances. College athletics have long been the major marketing and promotional arm of institutions, and football is one of the few revenue making sports that helps pay for other teams. Forfeiting games due to a player strike reflects poorly on the university’s administration, and creates financial problems in regards to contractual obligations. This weekend’s game against BYU creates even more challenges since the game is scheduled to be played off-campus, in Kansas City. Not playing means forfeiting not just a chance at victory, but also money spent on securing the venue, attracting a quality non-conference opponent, ticket and concessions revenue, and possibly TV money. This lost income then has a domino effect on other Mizzou teams that need it to survive.
As the New York Times explained yesterday; “What makes the Missouri team’s protest stand out even more is that it is not about the business of sports: compensation, image rights, labor issues or N.C.A.A. rules. It was initiated by black players showing solidarity with fellow black students who felt their concerns had not been adequately addressed by university administrators.” Further, the strike suggests that the players are unwilling to represent and be the national brand of university that ignores its students’ voices.
So far Wolfe has responded that he has no plans on stepping down, and argues that what the campus needs now is a “dialogue” to fix the problems the university faces. In one release Wolfe said, “Clearly, we are open to listening to all sides, and are confident that we can come together to improve the student experience on our campuses.” Many remain skeptical.
Despite Wolfe’s claims, no official stance by the university or his office has been taken on how to combat racism at Mizzou. Furthermore, the calls for “dialogue” are bizarrely inadequate. It posits the problem with discrimination as being merely a matter of not talking enough, instead of seeing it as an issue of intolerance by some. By placing the impetus on “conversations” President Wolfe continues with misunderstanding the situation. The problem isn’t with black students not talking about issues, the problem isn’t a breakdown in communication, and the problem isn’t the responsibility of black students to actively fix. The problem is with white supremacy, the institutions that permit it to go unchecked, and the whites who perpetrate it. Therefore, the “solution” isn’t blacks taking the moral responsibility of whites to behave better and think differently. The issue is with whites themselves. They need to change. They need to be held accountable. When whites on campus engage in racist actions with the intent of intimidating their classmates, and thereby contributing to a hostile learning environment, the solution isn’t making black students sit down for a “dialogue” with them. The problem resides with whites and formal institutions. They need to change. What is there to discuss?
For over the past year, ever since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, actions by various activists across the country, popular uprisings in places like Baltimore, and the increased recording of police brutalizing civilians has forced the national media to take seriously the issue of white supremacy. Spurred by the images of Ferguson’s unrest fifteen months ago, the narrative of police brutality, outrage on the Left, and the subsequent justified demonstrations has become a familiar script. From the police killing of Brown in Missouri, to Tamir Rice and John Crawford in Ohio, to Sandra Bland in Texas (and everywhere in between) the reactionary response has also become predictable. People’s skin color is equated with criminality, cops are profusely defended at all costs, and in the rare case a police officer is charged with a crime, the defense is made that the problem is a “few bad apples.”
However, now at Mizzou we may be witnessing an important turning point. The students at Mizzou are engaging in direct actions to battle white supremacy, making clear demands to university officials, one of which is a substantial change in university leadership (the entire list of demands can be read here).
Despite the best efforts and sacrifice of activists like Butler, it is important to note that not until the Mizzou football team went on strike did this story begin to gain national coverage. Much like the standard reactionary responses to various BlackLivesMatters protests across the country, many commenters remarked that the student athletes should be stripped of their scholarships and thrown out of the university.
Just a small sampling gives one the general idea- “Bye, no one owes you [student athletes] a damn thing. Kick rocks” or, “They have scholarships because they play football. If they stop playing football during football season their scholarships are void.” Or, “Nobody gets a free education. There’s no such thing. They pay for their education with their legs, arms and bodies.”
These sentiments are easily found on any major comment section currently running the story of Mizzou’s players. They are remarkable, precisely because of their commonality. As the final sentiment quoted above illustrates, college athletes, many of whom are people of color, are assumed to be at the university for the enjoyment and viewing pleasure of football audiences. The comments suggest that sports should be an apolitical realm where athletes are allowed to get a free education only if they parrot the company line. What’s more, under this mindset those free educations are meant only as a symbolic gesture to avoid properly compensating players because by telling athletes not to stand up for what they believe in, they are also effectively telling them to ignore the lessons they’ve learned in their free courses. Those “legs, arms, and bodies,” under a white supremacist mindset belong to the university who “paid” for them.
By engaging in a strike, these students are challenging that basic conception, arguing their bodies are theirs, that their labor is theirs to control, and that through solidarity they can force a change in their community. They are also debunking myths about dumb, selfish jocks. The strike continues a long tradition in American sports history, where the financial importance of athletic competition to some, coupled with the demand to be entertained, can be an arena to force problems to be addressed. A tradition where sports give and enhance the agency of minorities to make change.
As the student athletes of Mizzou stand in solidarity with student activists like Butler we are reminded of the way athletic arenas can be powerful vehicles for forcing social change. Butler is currently five days into his hunger strike, and Mizzou’s football team is adding volume to his voice. As activists have demonstrated with shutting down traffic in major cities, rising up in places like Baltimore, and blocking routes at major public events, there is considerable power to be had by those who can access avenues of public space and spectacle, using them as areas to forge previously disparate elements into a single focus of concern. Not without historical precedent, the football players of Mizzou have through their strike broken through to the national media to make previously unengaged audiences take note of what is happening in their community.
Wesley R. Bishop is a PhD student at Purdue University. He studies the history of the American labor movement, social reform, and cultural representations of the working class. He can be reached for question, comment, or debate at firstname.lastname@example.org