Brave or foolish. Ungrateful or principled. Trailblazers or lemmings.
Athletes or activists.
Your view of the Missouri football team right now has nothing to do with its won-loss record or standing in the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers left the gridiron – breaking away from the chalk lines that determine progress and boundaries – to enter society’s high-speed (and highly charged) rails.
Many fans want sports to serve as an escape, a respite from life’s difficult and challenging day-to-day realities. Just suit up, play ball and shut up; problems can wait until the game is over.
But a number of Missouri’s football players said no, there are troubles that need to be addressed immediately, superseding the need to practice or play sports.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe “Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,” read a statement Saturday night on Twitter, featuring a photo of 32 players. “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’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”
Under pressure from the team, plus a student’s hunger strike, campus organizations, Republican state lawmakers and the Kansas City Star editorial board, Wolfe stepped down Monday during an emergency meeting of the university’s Board of Curators.
“My motivation in making this decision comes from love,” Wolfe announced. “I love M.U. Columbia, where I grew up, and state of Missouri. I have thought and prayed about this decision. It’s the right thing to do.”
As for whether the team did the right thing, man your battle stations.
On this side, the young men are applauded for taking a stand. A series of racial incidents the last few months created a tumultuous climate at Mizzou. Wolfe’s slow response to complaints about the atmosphere – including a swastika that was drawn with feces on a dormitory bathroom wall – led to calls for his ouster. In a statement on Sunday, he said the university is working on a system-wide strategy to address diversity and inclusion.
He said the new measures would debut in April.
How’s that for a sense of urgency?
On the other side of the argument, Mizzou’s football players were out of their lane. They have athletic scholarships and should play … or return them. If they want to join protesters on their own, that’s what student organizations are for. Boycotting for matters related directly to the team is one thing, but not on general issues with all-or-nothing proposals like the president’s removal.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel disagreed with the latter sentiment. He gathered his staff and team – blacks and whites alike – for a photo in which their arms are interlocked: “The Mizzou Family stands as one,” Pinkel tweeted Sunday. “We are behind our players.”
Dissent is a fact of life within every family and football teams are no different. So it’s no surprise if less than 100 percent of the Tigers were in agreement with the boycott. “As much as we want to say everyone is united, half the team and coaches – black and white – are pissed,” an anonymous white player told ESPN. “If we were 9-0, this wouldn’t be happening.”
But imagine if they were undefeated and it happened anyway. Or imagine if players at, say, Alabama or Ohio State threatened to protest an issue by sitting out. Mizzou stood to lose more than $1 million if it forfeited Saturday’s game against BYU. The price at powerhouse programs would be much greater, and not just in terms of revenue.
Organizations such as the College Athletes Players Association largely have been unsuccessful in getting players to flex their collective muscle in pursuit of better health benefits. Northwestern football players failed in their bid to unionize last summer, but they put the issue in front of a national audience. Grambling’s football team boycotted over shoddy conditions for nearly a week in 2013, leading to a forfeiture against Jackson State.
In many pursuits, individuals’ self-interest often outweigh what might be best for the group. Much like top earners within an industry are less concerned with issues affecting the bottom dwellers, future pro athletes are more concerned with their draft position than with the overall status quo. Causes that don’t have a direct impact are unlikely to garner much support from star players beyond lip service.
We don’t know how many Mizzou players would’ve actually boycotted Saturday’s game. But you better believe their threat got everyone’s attention, not just in Columbia but across the nation.
It was a valuable learning experience for all parties – athletes, other students and administrators – which goes to prove that some of the most important aren’t delivered in classrooms or on the field. When viewed through that lenses, there’s nothing to dislike about athletes taking a stand, willing to face consequences for their beliefs.
If you have a problem with that, brace yourself.
There’s no telling what this generation might do next.