University of Missouri Football Protests: Looking in the Past to Shape the Future 

By Caleb Still, Guest Contributor

Racism and civil rights protests have long been a part of the fabric of American society. Black athletes have participated in these protests, risking their careers and source of income to advocate on behalf of oppressed people in the United States. Historically, black athletes have recognized their unique position and have used their popularity and power to speak out for equality and justice. As the campus of the University of Missouri was rocked with racial tension and vandalism in the Fall of 2015, students protested discriminatory actions and called for a change in leadership. Socially conscious members of the university football team rallied their teammates and stood in solidarity with the other students. The team gave a much-needed boost to the student protests taking place. I argue that the actions taken by the Missouri football team were not “revolutionary” or new. A pattern of black athlete activism in racial and social issues had already been established. Black athletes in the 1960s and 1970s organized and participated in a variety of protests and boycotts attacking social injustice. However, the methods used by the University of Missouri football team to broadcast their message were new and could signal a shift in the way future protests operate in today’s society. The use of social media to broadcast their boycott and show the team’s solidarity coupled with the threat of financial repercussions resulting from the boycott introduced a different set of tactics available to the modern-day athlete.

Racism at Mizzou

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In September, October, and November the University of Missouri faced several incidents of racism, including racial slurs and vandalism directed at black students. In September, student government president Payton Head wrote on Facebook that racial slurs were yelled at him by passengers in a passing truck. He said,” For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.”[1] On October 4th, a white student interrupted an African American student group’s event and allegedly used a racial epithet while being escorted away.[2] Three weeks later a swastika drawn in feces was smeared on the wall of a residence hall bathroom. Shortly after, in early November, graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike, demanding the resignation of university president Timothy Wolfe. Butler believed that Wolfe did not do enough to positively change the culture of racism at the University of Missouri. Butler blamed him for the atmosphere that contributed to the racist incidents at the school. Butler said, “I already feel like campus is an unlivable space so it’s worth sacrificing something of this grave amount, because I’m not wanted here. I’m already not treated like I’m a human.”[3]

Five days later, on November 8th, the university’s football team announced that it was standing with Butler, #ConcernedStudent1950, a student group that organized protests on campus, and the African American student population. The team members would participate in a boycott of all football activities effective immediately on November 8th.[4] The Missouri football team was scheduled to play Brigham Young University the following Saturday. Failure to do so required the university to pay a $1 million fine. Wolfe resigned two days later. The threatened boycott contributed to the resignation of Wolfe and several other changes in the leadership of the University of Missouri.[5]

Historical Precedent and Black Athlete Activism

According to the Missourian, football players participated in a school-sponsored event encouraging athletes to talk about race and racism shortly before Butler’s hunger strike. Anthony Sherrill, a University of Missouri football player, mentioned that he felt steered to an easier degree because he was a black athlete.[6] This event heightened the social consciousness of several athletes at the university. However, this was not the first incident of racist actions taken against black athletes on college campuses. The precedent for the University of Missouri protests was established in the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced by the success of prominent athletes’ activism, black athletes in the collegiate level put pressure on administrations to change Black athletes in particular have spoken out against mistreatment and discrimination. For example, Bill Russell used his basketball prowess as a platform to address racial discrimination during the 1950s and 1960s. Aram Goudsouzian writes that Russell “instilled an overt political dimension into basketball. He achieved personal and team success through sport, but he decried the exploitation of athletes and the inattention to racial injustice.”[7]

Similarly, Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, resisted the prevailing trend of disassociation with the Civil Rights Movement by black athletes. Instead he used his athletic ability as a means discuss the inequality and mistreatment of African Americans. According to John Smith, Alcindor believed, “Black Power meant using his athletic status to speak out for those who had no political voice, to articulate the frustrations of young black radicals who demanded freedom and dignity.”[8] Because of Russell and Alcindor’s participation in struggle for racial justice, along with other athletes like Jim Brown and Muhammed Ali, more athletes began to join the movement. The Olympic Project for Human Rights’ plans for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics was “legitimized” by Alcindor. This movement then, in turn, spurred college athletes to demand “various athletic and academic reforms” in predominantly white colleges. [9]

Racial animosity was high at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. In January, basketball coach Rene Herrerias dismissed Bob Pressley, an African American, from the team for missing a practice. He reinstated Pressley two days later. The white members of the team believed pressure was put on Herrerias to reinstate Pressley. They objected and promised to boycott the remaining games if the “administrative pressure” was not released. University officials denied the accusations. Twenty-five of the university’s 35 black athletes formed an organization that demanded Herrerias, two football coaches, and a business manager be dismissed because of “incompetence” and “unwillingness to relate to black athletes.” The white athletes decided to abandon their boycott and play the rest of the games. In March, the California’s athletic director resigned as well as Herrerias. New coaches were hired that were heavily endorsed by the university’s black basketball players.[10]

Black athlete-led protests during this time were not welcomed by all in the public, something Missouri players faced in 2015 as well. Syracuse University’s football team was involved in severe racial strife in 1970. Nine of ten black football players walked off the practice field in protest of a perceived reneging of a promise to hire more black coaches by head coach Ben Schwartzwalder. Chancellor Dr. John Corbally Jr. ordered Schwartzwalder to hire a black coach and he complied. However, Schwartzwalder dismissed seven of the players. One of the dismissed players filed discrimination charges against Schwartzwalder and the university. Corbally worked with the director of the Civil Rights Commission to devise a plan to allow the players back onto the team. Syracuse alumni believed Corbally was “giving in to unappreciative and troublemaking black athletes.” They argued that Corbally’s capitulation to the demands of the black players were a disappointment and were not wise.[11] The alumni’s disagreement with the protests of the Syracuse players and the school officials’ actions established a precedent that would continue.

Many disagreed with the participation by Missouri’s football team in the protests. One Missouri alumnus, Larry Rottmann, chastised the villanization of Missouri’s leadership by the student protests. He argued that President Wolfe, nor Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, should be blamed for the “perceived discrimination.” Rottmann criticized the football players for their participation. He said, “The real culprits are the 30-plus members of the Tigers football team who refused to play unless Wolfe left the school. These players, most of them black and on generous scholarships that allowed them to attend a previously fine university, broke their promise and their contract with MU and should have been immediately removed from the team and booted from the school.”[12] He, like the Syracuse alumni, believed that the school was “cowardly” and capitulated to the desires of black athletes. Rottmann cited Mack Rhoades, the athletic director at Missouri, as “the new boss of the university.”[13]

The football team’s protest was not solely responsible for the changes in leadership at Missouri. Instead, the team partnered with established student organizations already protesting the widespread discrimination. This was also the case during the protests on college campuses by black athletes in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the majority of methods used by the Missouri football team to protest were new and different, this partnering with student groups took the form of its historical precedent. David Wiggins says, “One of the most striking features of the revolts at Berkeley, Syracuse, and Oregon State was that black athletes did not go it alone but were ably assisted by their respective black student organizations. In large measure, black athletes either worked in concert with or were utilized by these groups to effectively bring about change in their particular institutions.”[14] The football team at Missouri supported Butler in his hunger strike by providing their significant power.

In the past, athletes have had a difficult time connecting with the “normal” student body. University of Missouri Sociologist Scott Brooks said that “big-time collegiate athletes are set apart and earn special treatment.”[15] The benefits they receive blind them to the cause of the oppressed. This makes it tough to identify with the struggles of those around them. Lew Alcindor, Bill Russell, and others were able to shed this blindness and speak out for those that had no voice. By partnering with other student organizations at the University of Missouri, the football team was able to unify and speak as one voice. The players at Missouri recognized their unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others and they reacted to it. Senior safety Ian Simon said, “Through this experience, we’ve really been able to bridge that gap between student-athletes — in the phrase ‘student-athlete’ — by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture. We will continue to build with the community and support positive change on Mizzou’s campus. Though we don’t experience everything the general student body does and our struggles may look different at times, we are all #ConcernedStudent1950.”[16]

According to one CNN report, politics in sport began to become “too risky” in the 1980s and 1990s. Endorsements and contracts were too enticing to jeopardize by making a political statement.[17] In recent years, there have been trends of athletes, especially African Americans, voicing their opinion in political matters. Sociologist Scott Brooks highlights LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, along with their Miami Heat teammates, wearing hoods and lowering their heads “in mourning for Trayvon Martin,” St. Louis Rams players running out of the tunnel with their hands up showing support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Los Angeles Clippers players wearing their warmup shirts inside out and covering the team’s logo after a “hate-filled rant” by the team’s owner.[18] Grambling State went on strike in 2013 to protest “poor facilities and travel arrangements in which they had to endure 15-hour bus rides one way to Kansas City and Indianapolis due to severe reductions in Louisiana’s state budget funding for higher education.”[19] Northwestern University’s football team moved to unionize in an effort to be viewed as employees of the university.[20] College athletes have examples from the past and the present to model their forms of activism. However, new sources of power are driving the success of the black athlete protests.

The Power of College Athletes

The amount of money generated by college athletics, especially football, is at the highest point it has ever been. Football programs are typically the highest moneymakers in college sports. The football program at Missouri generated “more than $35 million in revenue in 2014 and netted roughly $14 million in profit.”[21] This amount of money is significant and gives considerable power to those who can affect the football program. The agency black college athletes hold is their ability and willingness to play games. This has been true since the inception of “the revolt of the black athlete.” David Wiggins writes, “The use of four-letter words, class boycotts, building occupations, and staged rallies were all used by black students in an attempt to seek legitimacy in a situation in which they had no autonomy or power. The central ploy utilized by black athletes to foster confrontation and heighten tension was, of course, the threat or actual withholding of their services.”[22] Athletes today have the same ploys as those in the 1960s and ‘70s but the power with which they can use them is vastly different. University officials are reluctant to challenge athletes because of the financial blow they will take. In the case of Missouri’s football team, the cancellation of the Brigham Young game would cost the university $1 million. That amount of money, coupled with the decrease in public perception, would hurt the school severely. Thabiti Lewis says, “Not only does money talk, but when the oppressed rise up and attack the purse strings of the powerful, things happen.”[23]

In the past, control and power has been in the hands of those in authority in schools like the University of Missouri. Mitch Albom, a contributor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, argued that the protests at Missouri by the football team signified a “tilt” in power towards the athletes of the university. Although students voiced their concerns over the discrimination present at Missouri and one began a hunger strike, real change in the form of President Wolfe’s resignation did not happen until the football team threatened a boycott.[24] Tight end Jason Reese said, “It’s a terrible feeling to have it be the football team that makes the students’ voice be heard.”[25] The reality of society today is that powerful actors, like a university football team, will convey a much stronger message than “normal” people. College athletes have been made “larger than life” and have been given a louder voice.[26] This heightened sense of power and autonomy among black athletes has signaled a new wave of politicization of college athletics.

New Method: Social Media and the 21st Century Protest

Social media also played an extremely large part in the success of the University of Missouri football team’s boycott. In their study of mobilization efforts of student athletes in the future Adam Epstein and Kathryn Kisska-Schulze write, “As modern society has transitioned into a virtual culture, the evolution of collective college athlete action has led to the adoption of social media to garner broader attention, prompting vocal protests and debates on a nationalized scale.”[27] Obviously, black athletes in the Civil Rights era did not have the capabilities to reach thousands in a matter of seconds. Instead, print media reported on stories that were deemed newsworthy. As a result, many people around the country did not find out about stories like the boycotts at California, Berkeley, or the unrest at Syracuse University until much later, if at all. With the prevalence of instant media like Twitter and Facebook news travels fast. A member of the Missouri football team announced their boycott by tweeting, “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere’ We will no longer participate in any football related activities until president Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!!”[28] Once the boycott was announced there was speculation that the white players on the team would not participate. Head coach Gary Pinkel posted a photo to Twitter dispelling those rumors. He captioned the photo of the entire football team “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players. #ConcernedStudent1950 GP.”[29]screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-4-52-58-pm

Discursive power in the form of social media is a tool that college-aged athletes are adept at using. They recognize the benefits it provides them and the power it concentrates in their hands. That power coupled with their position as athletes opens up tremendous possibilities. When Jonathan Butler announced his hunger strike on Twitter he received 36 views. After the football team joined the protests, his tweet received over 55,000 hits.[30] Not only did the football team’s participation wield financial power, but also informational power as well. They were able to circulate a common message, untouched by media “spin,” to the nation. One reporter tweeted that the players were waiting several days to talk to him. Instead, they published their thoughts through their personal Twitter accounts.[31] As they have done with their increased autonomy through financial means, black athletes have taken advantage of the tool of social media as a way to galvanize a group of people and distribute their message. Black athlete activism today has a basis that was formed several decades ago. Protests still take the form of those modeled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, new methods and new forms of power have significantly influenced modern-day social campaigns.

Conclusion

The protests at Missouri accomplished their primary goal. Tim Wolfe, and other university officials, resigned and new leadership was brought in. This does not mean that the fight for equality on the campus of the University of Missouri and other universities has ended. In fact, these protests have sparked new interest in social justice in new segments of student populations. One editorial published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recognized the impact of Missouri’s football team. It also challenged university officials, students, and players alike to continue to push for total equality. It said, “The tough part is going to be maintaining your momentum. Once the excitement and exhilaration are gone, the uphill battle begins. It’s going to take hard work, diligence, extraordinary communication and outstanding leadership to make further gains. Time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.”[32] Athletes today have not only models from previous protests that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement but contemporary ones as well. Black athletes would do well to use these models and the new methods and sources of power discussed previously to demand justice for all.

Black athletes are placed in a unique situation in contemporary society. On the one hand, they receive special status that makes it hard for them to connect with regular students on the same levels. On the other, they are routinely exploited for their athletic achievements and the financial gains they provide for those above them. The protests at the University of Missouri displayed how athletes can bridge the gap between them and the rest of the student body to unify behind a common cause. Drawing on previous examples of athlete protests and utilizing new methods and sources of power, the football team at Missouri carved out their unique spot in the conversation of socially conscious black college athletes.

Caleb Still is a senior History major at Georgia Southern University. He is interested in the history of race in sport as well religion in the southern United States. Feel free to contact him with any questions or comments at cs08592@georgiasouthern.edu.

Notes:


[1] Doug Criss, “University of Missouri Protests: ‘This Is Just A Beginning,’” CNN, November 10, 2015.
[2] Elahe Izadi, “The Incidents That Led to the University of Missouri President’s Resignation,” Washington Post, November 9, 2015.
[3] Michael E. Miller, “Black Grad Student on Hunger Strike in Missouri after Swastika Drawn with Human Feces,” Washington Post, November 9, 2015.
[4] Cassandra Vinograd, “#ConcernedStudent1950: Missouri Football Players Boycott in Protest of President,” NBC, November 8, 2015.
[5] John Eligon and Richard Pérez-Peña, “University of Missouri Protests Spur a Day of Change,” New York Times, November 9, 2015.
[6] Jacob Bogage and Aaron Reiss, “The Life of Today’s Black Athlete, and How It Influenced a Movement at MU,” Missourian, November 20, 2015.
[7] Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” Journal of American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (Fall-Winter 2006): 79.
[8] John Smith, “’It’s Not Really My Country’: Lew Alcindor and the Revolt of the Black Athlete,” Journal of Sport History 36, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 240.
[9] Ibid., 223, 239.
[10] David K. Wiggins, “’The Future of College Athletics is at Stake’: Black Athletes and Racial Turmoil on Three Predominantly White University Campuses, 1968-1972,” Journal of Sport History 15, no. 3 (Winter 1988): 307-311.
[11] Ibid., 311-315.
[12] Larry Rottmann, letter to the editor, Columbia Daily Tribune, December 8, 2015.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Wiggins, “’The Future of College Athletics is at Stake,’” 328.
[15] Scott Brooks, “The Fire This Time: A Context for Understanding The Black Male Athlete Protests at Missouri,” Phi Kappa Phi Forum 96, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 18.
[16] Chuck Culpepper, “How Missouri Football’s Boycott Helped Bridge a Familiar Campus Divide,” Washington Post, November 13, 2015.
[17] Amy Bass, “When Athletes Unite, The Powerful Listen,” CNN, November 10, 2015.
[18] Brooks, “The Fire This Time,” 20.
[19] Craig T. Greenlee, “By Any Means Necessary,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 33, no. 6 (April 21, 2016): 14.
[20] Ibid., 14.
[21] Thabiti Lewis, “Enter the Real Power of College Sports,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 62, no. 12 (2015): 15.
[22] Wiggins, “’The Future of College Athletics is at Stake,’” 329.
[23] Lewis, “Enter the Real Power of College Sports,” 15.
[24] Mitch Albom, “Missouri Football Team Protest Could Start Trend,” Columbia Daily Tribune, November 17, 2015.
[25] Jacob Bogage, “Missouri Football Players Flexed Muscle with Proposed Boycott,” Missourian, November 9 2015.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Adam Epstein and Kathryn Kisska-Schulze, “Northwestern University, the University of Missouri, and the ‘Student-Athlete’: Mobilization Efforts and the Future,” Journal of Legal Aspects of Sports 26, no. 2 (2016): 92.
[28] Scott Gleeson, “Missouri Football Players to Boycott until President Tim Wolfe Resigns,” USA Today, November 8, 2015.
[29] Vinograd, “#ConcernedStudent1950: Missouri Football Players Boycott in Protest of President.”
[30] Greenlee, “By Any Means Necessary,” 15.
[31] Andy Hutchins, “Group of Black Missouri Players Boycott Football Team in Protest of University System President,” SBnation, November 7, 2015.
[32] Editorial, “Winning the Battle at Mizzou is Signal for Hard Work to Begin,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2015.

3 thoughts on “University of Missouri Football Protests: Looking in the Past to Shape the Future 

  1. In Arnold Rampersad’s text “Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, p. 97, see the account of Jackie Robinson’s 1944 encounter with the racial policy of the University of Missouri while in the army. This event seems it might fit somewhere in your article.

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  2. Pingback: The Intellectual Coach: Kerr, Popovich, and the Culture of Coaching | Sport in American History

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