by Joe Nocera
NOV. 9, 2015
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From left, the University of Missouri football players J'Mon Moore, Ian Simon and Charles Harris on Monday with members of Concerned Student 1950. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times
Well, that was fast.
When was it, exactly, that the African-American football players at the University of Missouri tweeted that they were going on strike until “President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed” from office? It was Saturday night, around 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Now consider the following timeline, which The Columbia Missourian recently published.
On Sept. 12, Payton Head, the president of the Missouri Student Association, takes to Facebook to describe a campus incident during which the most vile of anti-black slurs was hurled at him. A second racial incident occurs on Oct. 5. By Oct. 10, dissatisfied by the administration’s tepid response, a group called Concerned Student 1950 stages a protest during the homecoming parade. Ten days later, the group issues eight demands, including “an increase in the percentage of black faculty and staff,” as well as Wolfe’s removal from office.
A swastika drawn with feces is discovered in a bathroom on Oct. 24. Concerned Student 1950 has an inconclusive meeting with Wolfe three days later. Jonathan Butler, a protest leader, announces a hunger strike on Nov. 2. Another meeting with Wolfe takes place the next day, during which he promises, essentially, to do better.
In other words, nearly two months had gone by before the football players decided to get involved. Once they did, Wolfe lasted all of 36 hours. Later in the day, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said he would resign as well, effective at the end of the year.
In announcing his resignation Monday morning, Wolfe said he was motivated by his “love” for his alma mater. No doubt he was sincere. But it is hard to believe that his calculations didn’t include money as well: the $1 million that Missouri would be contractually obliged to pay Brigham Young University if the Tigers failed to play Saturday’s game; and the mess it would create for itself — and the Southeastern Conference, which it joined only four years ago — if a players’ strike lasted to the end of the season. Missouri’s final SEC game in late November, against Arkansas, is scheduled to be televised by CBS, which pays the conference $55 million a year for television rights.
As Andy Schwarz, an economist who has been deeply involved in a series of antitrust lawsuits against the N.C.A.A., put it, “the issues at Missouri are far more important than college football, but the Missouri athletes showed that the color that matters most is green.”
Will racism be eliminated from the Missouri campus now that the football players have succeeded in ousting Wolfe? Of course not. On a campus of about 35,000 students, only 7.2 percent are black. The school has worked to attract more students from urban centers, including outside of Missouri, which can create a cultural conflict with some in-state rural white students.
In addition to the incidents in which black students were called that repugnant name on a public street, there have also been several times recently when two trucks drove down a campus street with the occupants waving a Confederate flag.
“It’s a very tense place, very racially tense,” Stephanie Hernandez Rivera, the coordinator of the university’s Multicultural Center, said in a video released by the Faculty Council Committee on Race Relations. Earnest L. Perry, an African-American journalism professor, told me that teaching a required journalism diversity course throughout the years opened him to “criticism and racism, both written and verbal; I am not immune.”
No, it’s going to take more than the resignation of its president to fix the racial problems affecting Mizzou.
On the other hand, Wolfe didn’t do himself any favors. A former corporate executive, Wolfe possessed a command-and-control style that didn’t jibe well with campus life. And he clearly didn’t know how to respond to the protests.
Qiana Jade, a Missouri student, posted a video on Twitter showing an exchange between Wolfe and some protesters. It shows him clearly out of his element — and on his heels. Asked by the students to define “systematic oppression,” he said, “I’ll give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.” Pressed further, he said, “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.”
The students erupted in anger. As Wolfe walked away, a student yelled: “Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe? Did you just blame black students?”
Jade posted that video on Friday night. By Saturday night, most of her Twitter energy was devoted to spreading the word that black members of the football team had joined the protest.
“So proud of our young black men!!” she tweeted. “They are really stepping up.”
And indeed they were. Which brings me to my second point. It turns out that the football players had something the other protesters didn’t: power. There wasn’t the slightest hint that Wolfe was considering resigning — until the football players got involved. Schwarz, the economist, told me that it was easy for the university administration to ignore the protesters because they were members of minorities and because they were young. But, he added, “The one place where young minority voices have economic power is sports.”
As readers of my old Op-Ed column well know, I have long contended that the players in the revenue-producing sports — college football and men’s basketball — are being terribly exploited by College Sports Inc. There are many players who feel that way, too, and who believe they deserve payment for the work they do beyond the cost of attending college. But they’ve always felt powerless to bring that about. After all, they are young and full of dreams of playing professionally — dreams that they fear might be dashed if they were to become involved in a strike or a protest.
And they are susceptible to pressure. In January 2014, when Kain Colter, the former Northwestern University quarterback, first informed the Wildcats’ coach, Pat Fitzgerald, that the football team was trying to unionize, Fitzgerald said, “I’m proud of you guys for doing this.” But Fitzgerald soon changed his tune and made it clear to the players that he viewed a vote for the union as a personal betrayal. At Missouri, Gary Pinkel, the football coach (he makes more than $4 million a year, by the way) openly supported his striking athletes. That was easy to do with the next game a week away and the team, at 4-5, unlikely to make a major bowl. How supportive would he have remained as we got toward Saturday?
That’s why I have never considered it realistic that, for instance, college basketball players might one day boycott the Final Four to force the system to change. Or at least that’s what I thought until this weekend. One wonders what athletes at other universities are thinking, now that they’ve seen a football team take down a university president in 36 hours.
“It is a monumental step,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the former Nike marketing executive who now devotes his life to fighting the N.C.A.A. Vaccaro noted that the players took their stand not on their own behalf but for a larger cause, something, as he put it, “that affects their humanity.”
Schwarz had a similar thought.
“Civil rights matter most,” he said. “The next step is for athletes to realize that their economic lives matter, too, and that this power that they possess can also be used to push for justice on that front as well.”
Joe Nocera is writing a new Sports Business column that will appear in the print edition on Saturdays beginning Nov. 21 and at other times throughout the week. He previously wrote a column for the Op-Ed page. Follow him on Twitter: @NoceraNYT.