Athletics

Upheaval in Missouri Highlights Football Players’ Power

November 10, 2015

On Saturday evening, black football players at the University of Missouri announced that they were boycotting practice and even a crucial game if the system’s president, Timothy M. Wolfe, didn't resign over his response to racist incidents on the Columbia campus.

By Sunday, the protesting players had gained a key supporter: their coach, Gary Pinkel. He tweeted this photo:

Late Monday morning, Mr. Wolfe announced his resignation.

It was a remarkable and sudden ending to a tense campus standoff that had begun a week earlier, when a graduate student at Mizzou, Jonathan Butler, announced a hunger strike to protest several recent reports of racism on the campus, and what many there saw as Mr. Wolfe's slow and inadequate response to those events.

After meeting with Mr. Butler over the weekend, a sophomore football player, Anthony Sherrils, tweeted a picture of his teammates with a statement that they would "no longer participate in any football related activities" until Mr. Wolfe resigned or was fired for "his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences."

The players' involvement made the story national news. And the outcome is a stark example of the power that athletes can have when they unify behind a broad cause, said several experts on college athletics.

"I can't emphasize enough that President Wolfe's resignation would not have happened at this rate without the football players’ and Coach Pinkel's participation," said Daron K. Roberts, a former NFL coach and the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin.

The question for many now is whether athletes at other colleges can and will use the example at Missouri as inspiration to start protests on their own campuses, and not just on broad social injustice but also to improve conditions for the players themselves.

5 Moments That Led to the Resignations

Both Timothy M. Wolfe and R. Bowen Loftin had resisted several calls to resign as the University of Missouri's president and as chancellor of its flagship campus, respectively. But it was the prolonged turmoil in Columbia, Mo., that played a crucial role in forcing them out. For those just catching up, here are five moments that paved the way for Monday's ousters:

1. Graduate students learn their health insurance won't be subsidized.

In August the university suddenly informed graduate students it would no longer subsidize their health insurance. The measure, which the institution defended as satisfying a provision of the Affordable Care Act, prompted protests and an apology from Mr. Loftin.

2. A student leader's account of a racist incident goes viral.

The recent outrage over racism in Columbia began outright in September, when the president of the Missouri Students Association, Payton Head, wrote in a Facebook post that he had been accosted on the campus by men who yelled a racist epithet at him out of a truck.

3. A homecoming parade gets tense.

Students protesting the racist incidents, united under the name Concerned Student 1950, surrounded Mr. Wolfe's car at a homecoming parade in October. When the students refused to move, they were dispersed by police officers. Throughout the incident, Mr. Wolfe stayed in the car, which then allegedly bumped at least one of the protesters as it drove away.

4. Jonathan Butler begins a hunger strike.

Mr. Butler, a graduate student and one of the protesters at the parade, began a hunger strike on November 2, saying he wouldn't eat until Mr. Wolfe resigned.

5. Football players threaten a boycott, and the coach backs them up.

On Saturday a group of Missouri football players said they would join Mr. Butler's protest, boycotting all football-related events until Mr. Wolfe was out of office. The next day, their coach, Gary Pinkel, tweeted a photo of the team together and said he stood behind the players.

—Andy Thomason
 "It's going to happen," said Emmett Gill, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Texas at San Antonio who is an advocate for broader rights for athletes. "This stand by the Mizzou student-athletes has set a precedent to not only influence issues in higher education but issues of player welfare," said Mr. Gill, who also heads the nonprofit Student-Athletes Human Rights Project.

Risks and Rewards

While there is broad agreement that the protest by football players had an outsize impact on Mr. Wolfe's resignation, their actions carried considerable risk. The protest was a high-stakes move for nearly all involved.

The players couldn't be certain, at first, if the coaching staff and athletics department were going to support them or punish them, said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, which advocates for better playing conditions and academic support for college athletes. "This took a lot of courage; they didn't ask the coaches for permission," he added.

Mr. Gill said that there was also some reputational risk for players who want to play professional football in the future. "It's unfortunate that a player who stands for social-justice issues can be blackballed," Mr. Gill said.

There were also big financial and reputational risks for the university. Mizzou is scheduled to play football against Brigham Young University on Saturday in the NFL stadium in Kansas City, Mo. If the Tigers had forfeited the game, they would have had to pay the opposing university $1 million.

The coaches and athletic department risked looking insensitive if they had not supported the players, several experts added.

Players who skipped practice could have been punished under NCAA rules, said Richard M. Southall, an associate professor of sport and entertainment at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. But coaches could also have violated those players’ free-speech rights by punishing them, Mr. Southall said.

During a televised news conference on Monday, both the athletics director, Mack B. Rhoades IV, and Mr. Pinkel said they supported the players, but they also stressed the extraordinary nature of the situation.

"Certainly, the last two days have been challenging," Mr. Rhoades said, adding that there was "no playbook, no script" for how to handle a player boycott.

A Game-Changer

While the team was successful in tipping the balance in this instance, it may not be so easy for athletes to pursue similar protests in the future. Many colleges prohibit athletes from speaking to the news media without permission, or even to use social media to express their personal views.

A key to the success of the boycott was that it focused broadly on a societal issue, said Mr. Huma. He also expressed concern that the hunger strike and allegations of racism hadn't been enough, absent the players’ involvement, to generate a quicker response from both the university and the media.

"A graduate student starving himself in protest should have garnered some national attention," he said.

'In an ideal America, it would not take a boycott by student-athletes to bring this issue into the spotlight and bring change.'
Some may also be cynical that the money at stake gave the team more leverage, said Mr. Roberts, but that's how many decisions are made outside of academe. "I think in an ideal America, it would not take a boycott by student-athletes to bring this issue into the spotlight and bring change," he said.

Mr. Gill said he expected that more college athletes would begin organizing for change, and that athletics departments needed to prepare thoughtfully for that likelihood.

"It's something they should anticipate and develop strategies for working with student-athletes," he said, "or they will be put in a quandary like the University of Missouri was over the weekend."

Athletics officials at Mizzou also said that in the future they hoped to avoid such situations.

"We understand that not participating is an extreme measure," Mr. Rhoades, the athletics director, told reporters at the news conference. "It's not an ideal way to effect change. We hope this is a learning opportunity."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.