Much ink has already been spilled and much will continue to spill with respect to the racial unrest, hunger strike, leadership resignations/reshuffling and the unified, coach supported, football protest at the University of Missouri. For those now reflecting on these events for the first time, remember this: these tensions did not develop out of thin air in the last week. Racial unrest has been brewing at Mizzou for months (some would say years), and similar racial disharmony exists on many other campuses — large and small — across our nation. It comes as no surprise to me that the best piece yet on this situation was written by none other than Joe Nocera and appears in today’s New York Times.
But, make no mistake about this: the events at Mizzou are only the beginning of current collegiate athletes seeing, seizing and showcasing their power to enable change — not just for themselves but for others. And, there is much yet to be settled at Mizzou; there are the demands of the student activists including some beyond the original list, and then there are opportunities to see if real change ensues, starting perhaps with how the search for the new president and chancellor progresses. One can only imagine how the search committee composition will be scrutinized.
For me, a product of the 60’s and the age of student protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, these events are actually heartening. Start with the recognition that this is an exemplary ironic moment. Athletic wrongdoing on and off the field at the college and professional level is reaching a fevered pitch (think Greg Hardy; think about Roethlisberger’s injury; think on Sarkasian and his behavior and absence of role modeling; think Fantasy Football scandals) and think about collegiate athletes being robustly criticized for their collective academic deficiencies (necessitating cheating even). Against this backdrop, the Mizzou Tigers football team stood up and protested racism on their campus. You can’t make it up.
Ponder for more than a few seconds the posted and widely circulated photograph of the team and coaches – individuals of all races, backgrounds and ages – sitting and standing together.
Bold. Courageous. Smart. Effective. Ethically sound. Morally right. Bravo. The Missouri Tigers are a team with a long history of success (this year’s stats notwithstanding), with players and coaches now in the NFL; they took a seemingly unwavering stand not on dollars for themselves (although dollars are a big part of the larger story) and not for unionizing (Northwestern did that).
The Tigers took a stand for racial justice.
I am not alone in seeing a changing role for college athletes. And yes, I am fully aware that some folks do not approve of the protest, suggesting it is inappropriate, dishonorable, violative of university and scholarship rules and out of line in terms of institutional governance. I would agree only in so far as to suggest that students don’t have actual or apparent authority to fire their institution’s president or chancellor; they can surely take steps though that lead to an eventual firing. Goodness knows: votes of no confidence in academic leaders have a long history, albeit an uncertain impact.
When I saw the Tiger team photo, I was and still am reminded of the incredible and controversial photo of the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics.
I remember the event itself; I recall the enormous controversy that surrounded Tommie Smith and John Carlos in America. I recollect the Olympic Committee’s approbation (they should be choking over their behavior in light of more recent events). I remember vividly folks saying these athletes overstepped their boundaries and marched into politics. I remember the pumped fists (I had forgotten one was right handed and one was left handed). I had also forgotten the Silver Medalist Aussie Peter Norman who wore a human rights badge in the photo (and had a key role behind the scenes) and was castigated for decades in his own nation. I had forgotten that he died young, and Smith and Carlos were among the pallbearers.
That photo and the Kent State slaying photo are iconic for me. This generation no doubt sees those photos as history – long ago history. But that Black Power Salute helped empower a civil rights movement for which we should all be grateful. Lots of folks paid a high price for our collective freedom. Death, bloodshed, loss of reputation: those were just some of the consequences.
When I was a college president, I often wondered why protests were so far and few between on today’s campuses. I have some theories on that subject but let’s leave those for another day. Back almost 50 years ago, those protests were painful but powerful. They were at times too violent; yes, that is true. And, yes, we blamed a war on those who fought in it not those who ordered it, and for that I feel both terrible and guilty. But, all of these protests – some courageously propelled by athletes – lead to positive change in race relations that endures, albeit shakily, today.
Perhaps the Tigers photo with Coach Gary Pinkel’s support being loud and clear will become iconic for this generation as we continue to fight for civil rights in America. Let’s hope, too, that unlike the Black Power Salute, it doesn’t take decades to see the value in and power of peaceful campus protests for racial equality in America. Were I at Mizzou today – as a student-athlete, an undergraduate or graduate student or member of the faculty, staff or athletic department – I would feel proud. We might just have witnessed history.