Amid racial tensions on the campus of the University of Missouri, the student protest group, Concerned Student 1950, demanded the resignation of University President Tim Wolfe after mishandling several racialized incidents. At the center of the protests was graduate student and activist Jonathan Butler who began a hunger strike on November 2nd following Wolfe’s refusal to take action. At Butler’s behest, 32 black players on the Mizzou football team chose to take a stand in solidarity, protesting the systemic oppression felt by black students on the predominately white campus. Just as 1960s activist Dr. Harry Edwards (who was the architect behind the 1968 Olympic podium black power salute of track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos) understood the power of the voice of the black student-athlete, Butler wisely struck an accord with the football players and inspired them to take up these disputes that similarly affect them and other marginalized students on campus.
Butler’s awareness undoubtedly led to the swift resignation of the beleaguered President Wolfe as well as the school’s chancellor. After months of ongoing protest, the president stepped down within two days of the athletes’ involvement. Ironically, this resembles a time when many schools in the West protested Missouri’s next opponent, the Mormon church-sponsored Brigham Young University, for their policies on blacks. Less than 50 years ago, fourteen black football players at the University of Wyoming sought to wear black armbands in their upcoming game against BYU in protest of its racist and objectionable teachings regarding people of African lineage.
The difference between then and now, however, was the disposition and sensitivity of the coach. The Black 14 (as they were called) went to Coach Lloyd Eaton in earnest to ask for support in bringing attention to what the players understood as a grave injustice. Instead, they were met with wrath and indignation, and they were unceremoniously kicked off the team effective immediately. In contrast, Missouri Football Coach Gary Pinkel showed unprecedented courage and leadership this past weekend as he gathered his team, ultimately encouraging all players to stand together with their brothers in battle, refusing to practice or compete until action was taken in favor of justice for stigmatized minorities.
It is a rare event when white Americans stand up for racial justice in defense of the oppressed, which is evident by the white outcry at his involvement in such a polemical issue. His players deserve much praise as well for putting their future on the line for a just cause. This is not the first time we have seen athletes speak truth to power, but it has been quite some time since we have witnessed an era of athletes standing in righteous defiance against social injustice.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a long-time athlete activist himself, recently lambasted Michael Jordon in an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” for choosing “commerce over conscience.” Abdul-Jabbar came of age in the 60s during the rise of the athlete-activist. Along with him, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, Arthur Ashe, John Carlos and many others all stood up for racial injustice and used there prominence and visibility to draw attention to social issues that afflicted the African American community. These competitors would blaze a path for future black athletes to follow, leaving a legacy for the next round of freedom fighters. The black athletes that immediately followed, however, were focused more on their “brand” and the balance sheet, as they found a way to increase their presence in the burgeoning sports-industrial complex.
Michael Jordan undeniably changed the game, allowing players to realize the value of their labor power in negotiating contracts as well as lucrative celebrity endorsement deals. Even more so, pitching and developing products for mass consumption for the Nike Corporation, and ultimately branding his likeness with the Air Jordan sneaker craze, paved the way for today’s athletes to open up additional revenue streams. A player’s brand became the locus for the black professional athlete of the 1990s, as they labored to gain financial security for their families in a hostile environment.
But at what cost did this come to themselves and the black community? Jordan proved that the athlete had power to negotiate his or her own contracts and take a piece of the monetary share. But by failing to recognize that his power could be utilized to help alleviate human suffering, he in essence turned his back on black America, a people still in crisis. This was never more apparent than when “his Airness” famously stated, “Republicans buy shoes, too,” as he declined to politically endorse the black North Carolina incumbent for Senate against proud southern racist Jesse Helms.
Blacks have been largely left out from the developmental and business aspect of sport (coaching, operations, etc). They were hired to be the workhouse, the beasts of burden, with no stake in the game. The new millennium has seen a resurgence in athlete activism.
LeBron James is arguably the most formidable among his peers; his voice is often heard loud and clear. He recognizes the enormous sway that he holds in a sport-frenzied and capital-driven society. Feeling an obligation to use that platform in the cause of social justice, “King James” has been deliberate in taking a position to support African Americans, whether it be posting a protest picture supporting the late Trayvon Martin or voicing criticism of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. But James certainly has not been the only audible dissident. Members of the St. Louis Rams staged a pre-game demonstration in support of the Ferguson community in the wake of Michael Brown’s death by a Ferguson Police Officer. And after the news that Eric Gardner’s killer would not be indicted, Derrick Rose kicked off a wave of consternation donning a warm-up t-shirt embossed with the “I Can’t Breathe” protest declaration. Several football players and soon entire NBA basketball teams followed suit. These concerns, however, were not isolated to the professional athlete. Collegiate programs like Notre Dame women’s basketball and Georgetown men’s basketball also involved themselves in the fray.
Just when the final words were inked in my new manuscript, When Race Religion and Sport Collide, which examines the thorny issue of race in college athletics in an age where players are asserting themselves and their rights to a quality education or compensation, the Mizzou football program eloquently provided a cogent roadmap for other division I teams to follow that demonstrate the ways in which players can and should use their popularity within big-time college sports to influence action and policy.
In the wake of the Wolfe resignation, will this undertaking allow students of color greater voice on campus, such as recruiting more faculty of color and administrators to represent their interests? Or will all progressive action silently fade back to what it was as soon as the money streams reopen? After all, with the self-reinstatement of the black athletes, University of Missouri no longer stands to lose an estimated $1 million at their next game against the cougars at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.
Many have criticized the involvement of the athletes and Coach Pinkel, despite issues of race that directly affect the players on a human level. And yet, these dissenters are the same folk that buy tickets to the games, hoping to be a part of the sports madness so long as the players remain silent to marginalization. In other words, their presence is strictly for the sole purpose to entertain the fan. But this is precisely what these high-profile student-athletes should be doing—using their status for positive measures in the community, advancing the cause of equality in a nation rife with hatred.
University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long walked among demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest holding a sign that would define his generation. He asked, “Are we still *thugs* when you pay to watch us play?” His question embodied all that is wrong with US race relations.
Darron T. Smith is a professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. He is the author of When Race, Religion & Sports Collide: Blacks Athletes at BYU and Beyond, which was recently released to critical praise in November 2015. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith This post first appeared on Huffington Post Sports