“We will no longer participate…”

Yesterday, after months of demonstrations involving students and faculty concerning race-incited incidents of bigotry and vandalism – exposing, for some, a campus cultural petri dish of prejudice, encouraged, if not also empowered, however inadvertently, by official disregard – Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System, resigned.

The issues are numerous. So, too, the attitudes and opinions about them. Some, citing with dismay the aggressive tactics of some of the protestors, raise the importance of law and order. Others, the absolute value of free speech rights vis-à-vis public demonstration and civil disobedience. Still others wrestle with what I deem an ages-old question about the difference between institutional racism and situational prejudice, and whether or when an instance of the latter is a manifestation of the former. And more than one commentator has averred that Mr. Wolfe’s resignation is only symbolic salve that does not begin to address the social and systemic concerns that sparked the dissent.

On one subject most seem to agree. On November 7, the protests were invigorated locally in and around Columbia, Missouri, and garnered immediate national notice when a number of the members of the university football team, pledging solidarity with the protests, declared: “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” The next day, the football coach, Gary Pinkel stated: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”

This, for me, signals a nearly unimaginable potential transition in the nature of collegiate athletics. For generations, major university sports, principally football and basketball, have been the engine of a multi-billion dollar commercial industry that affects various aspects of American life; three among them, politics (I think particularly of the relationship between state government executive and legislative branches with state-run flagship educational institutions), economics, especially media investment, chiefly television (and the benefits for schools in funding academic program development and infrastructure maintenance), and entertainment. Now, with a singleness of purpose expressed in a 26-word tweet, the Mizzou footballers, speaking with a voice of social consciousness, have stepped into the arena of public witness.

I would guess that at least some of the powers that be who govern collegiate athletics cannot be happy. An essential element that makes the money-making system run is the compliance of the student athletes.[1] Players are recruited and come to school to practice and to play.[2] With a precedent set by the Mizzou players, what happens now whene’er (and there will be such a time) another issue of social importance arises and a group of athletes considers saying, “We will no longer participate.”?

Footnotes:

[1] Or some would term athlete students, given legions of proven stories of the provision and reception of undue, at times, illegal benefits with less than stellar performances, even appearances in campus classrooms.

[2] As recently as the past year’s football season, I recall, with chagrined admiration for his honesty, one player of a perennially nationally recognized program, say, “I didn’t come here to study school, but to play football.”

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