Enter the Real Power of College Sports

Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

November 11, 2015

In Hank Willis Thomas’s provocative photo "The Cotton Bowl," a football player is in a three-point stance at the goal line facing a black sharecropper picking cotton in the end zone. The point of the image, part of the artist’s "Strange Fruit" installation, is that the exploitation of black bodies for profit without adequate pay continues in the 21st century. The king crop — collegiate football — must be harvested.

The University of Missouri football program generated more than $35 million in revenue in 2014 and netted roughly $14 million in profit. So, while university administrators may not wholly believe that black lives matter, it does matter to them that certain black lives are on the football field. Within 48 hours of the players’ announcement that they would not labor in the field for the university until the president was removed or resigned, he was gone.

I applaud their courage and their wisdom. It is difficult to applaud the University of Missouri’s governing board, however, because members were aware of the campus climate of vitriol and of the ex-president Timothy Wolfe’s refusal to act. They ignored a letter received from a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, outlining the abuses; they remained quiet when a white student spewed epithets at members of the Legion of Black Collegians in October; and they were mute when members of Concerned Student 1950, a protest organization, surrounded Wolfe’s car during the homecoming parade demanding to have their marginalized voices heard.

Why was there was no action from the board after the student-body president, Payton Head, reported that racial slurs had been shouted at him? The pattern of inaction continued after Butler went on a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until Wolfe stepped down or was fired.

The board was lax in responding to all but one thing: the football players’ threatened boycott.

Why? Not only does money talk, but when the oppressed rise up and attack the purse strings of the powerful, things happen. To be clear, Wolfe’s resignation was less about morality than about money: If Missouri were not to play Brigham Young University this Saturday, it would have to pay $1 million in damages to BYU and potentially would lose at least that much in game revenue.

And now that Wolfe is gone, I wish the players had vowed not to return to the field until most of their demands had been met. These three can be immediately addressed: (1) The university meets the Legion of Black Collegians’ demands from 1969 for the betterment of the black community. (2) The university creates a strategic 10-year plan by May 1, 2016, to raise retention rates for marginalized students, sustain diversity curriculum and training, and promote a more safe and inclusive campus. (3) The university increases funding, resources, and personnel for the social-justice centers on campus to hire additional professionals, particularly those of color, expanding outreach, and increasing campus-wide awareness and visibility.

These courageous young athletes deserve applause for taking an enormous chance. Like the Northwestern University football team, which demanded to be unionized, the Missouri players are using their power as college athletes to bring attention to injustice in the world.

Perhaps the Missouri basketball team will apply pressure to help get the list of demands met. Or maybe during the college-football playoff or bowl games, or the NCAA basketball tournament in March, players from other teams will protest by sitting on the bench or refusing to play.

The NCAA’s president, Mark Emmert, likes to remind us that these players are "student-athletes" and therefore undeserving of pay Maybe athletes in football and basketball will decide to leverage the moment for a bigger piece of the financial pie. Perhaps Clemson University’s football players will follow Missouri’s lead and strike to get their president, Jim Clements, to respond to the list of grievances that a student group, the Coalition of Concerned Students, gave him in January to deal with a pattern of social injustice.

Regardless of what happens next, my hope is that this is only the beginning. For now, the Missouri players have shown us the power of sport in American culture. Their stand reminds us of what we learned during the Montgomery bus boycott: Those who control systems of power have a different meter of morality when it comes to money than when it comes to people.

Thabiti Lewis is an associate professor of English at Washington State University and the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press, 2010).