Keith Strudler: Missouri Football's Big Win
By all regards, players on the University of Missouri football team can consider this a win. Now former University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe, and former flagship campus chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, cannot. In the most confrontational of moments, African-American members of the Missouri football team threatened to sit out until Wolfe resigned. That was last week. And since the Tigers had an off-week last Saturday, this weekend would be the true test of conviction, when Missouri faced out-of-conference foe BYU, who was put in the uncomfortable front row seat of this showdown. Had the standoff continued, Missouri football would have been without 30+ athletes against the Cougars, which, assuming you know BYU athletics, would have resulted in one of the whitest college football games in the past 30 years. At this point, it’s all a matter of hypotheticals, having avoided what could have been the most racially charged sports moment since the 1968 Olympic Games.
Of course, we all know how we got here. Wolfe had been repeatedly accused of mishandling and undervaluing a series of race related incidents on the Missouri campus, including several African-American students enduring racial epithets from other students. Add this to a rising campus tension around race and the school’s relative proximity to the shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and an uncomfortable simmer became a rapid boil. Clearly, the Missouri football team wasn’t the only place of active dissent – grad student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike received national recognition, for example – but football became immediately central to a story that had lingered for months. And unlike the slow march of the story until now, big time Division I football changed the timeline. Anyone who’s ever been on a college campus knows the typical unhurried pace of progress, where meetings about meetings are standard fare and the word “expedited” is rarely used much less intended. But now with football, it’s different. Because BYU’s coming to town whether the resolution’s passed or not.
It’s beyond me and certainly this commentary to fairly evaluate the racial strife and challenges on American college campuses. Missouri isn’t the only college currently locked in battle over this very topic. In the Northeast alone, Yale and Ithaca have contentious battles between campus constituents, and certainly there are countless cases nationwide that haven’t reached either this gridlock or animus. For me to put any blanket statement on this American state is both simplistic and probably irresponsible. Let’s simply say that as a country, we’re again asking questions of justice, fairness, and identity, quandaries that are not surprisingly at the center of debate at our universities. As I suppose they should be.
But what I would like to address is the place of major college sport around race and, in particular, the University of Missouri. It’s impossible to know if 31 players forced Missouri’s hand, but it’s naïve to assume it didn’t play a primary role. Not only would the media coverage of this game be catastrophic for the university administration, it would also conjure larger narratives of the place of race in big time American college sport – namely football and men's basketball. Well over half of Mizzou’s scholarship football players are black, even more than had committed to this week’s potential walk-out. And the head coach – who was very supportive of his players’ intentions – along with both president Wolfe and chancellor Loftin, are white. The most visible marketing tool of the University of Missouri, and really any major Division I university outside of Lexington and Chapel Hill, are its gridiron warriors. And that’s with all respect to every scientist and scholar on every campus in the nation. But as has been said repeatedly, let me know when 100,000 people show up for an English class.
So when the football team stood up for what many on campus had protested against for some time, the symbolic message became more than even a steadfast university administration could endure. It went from being an angry message from African-American students to a reminder that at times, what we have on a college campus looks way too much like an America long past.
Will this victory, if that’s the right word, change that? Probably not. At some point, we have to collectively decide how to make elite college athletics look less like racially coded servitude and more like an extra-curricular activity. Or a job. Either way, parts of the Missouri football team took a step in that direction by reminding us that football players can have values and conviction that go far beyond the gridiron. That’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on sports fans like myself, who too often see college football teams as commodities, athletes simply looking for the next win. In an odd way, players at the University of Missouri seem to have just gotten one.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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