“Activist athletes on college campuses” By Chris Youngpeter

“Activist athletes on college campuses” By Chris Youngpeter

To recognize the power of athletics on college campuses, one needs only to look at the highest paid public employee in each of the 50 states. In 39 states, that employee is a university coach.[1] The power of athletics collided with social activism in Columbia, Missouri in November 2015. On November 7, 2015, black football players from the University of Missouri tweeted a picture with locked arms and an accompanying message that they would no longer play football as long as university president Tim Wolfe remained at the university.[2] The next day those players were joined by dozens of their teammates (black and white) and by football coach Gary Pinkel.[3] Tim Wolfe resigned the next day.[4]

The onus for this football boycott was the buildup of racial tensions on the Missouri campus over the preceding months. The protests of the administration were kick-started by a message posted on September 12, 2015, by Missouri Students Association president Payton Head, detailing the instances of racism he had experienced while a student at Missouri.[5] Throughout September and early October, Missouri students held protests and rallies criticizing the administration’s (and Wolfe’s specifically) delayed response to the concerns raised by Head.[6] In October, the protests coalesced under the name “Concerned Student 1950” and a list of demands were made to the university, including the removal of Wolfe as university president, increased diversity in the faculty, and mandatory diversity training.[7]

Due to the lack of response from the administration to address these demands and the issue of discrimination on campus, graduate student Jonathan Butler started a hunger strike on November 2, pledging not to eat until Wolfe was removed as president.[8] Concerned Student 1950 met with Wolfe and others on November 3 and protestors later confronted Wolfe on November 6, leading Wolfe to apologize for his perceived lack of empathy about the concerns raised by the campus protestors while still retaining his position as president.[9] It was not until November 9, in the immediate aftermath of the football boycott, that Butler’s hunger strike ended with Wolfe’s resignation.[10]

These events raise the question of whether the boycott was a singular event that caused the resignation of Wolfe or whether it was the last nail in the coffin when considered with the hunger strike and the other acts of protest by Missouri students. The long-term impact of the continuing protests and hunger strike is unclear. The humiliation of the deteriorating health of Jonathan Butler and the impact of a protestor-led boycott of services at the university may have shamed the university into making the changes that were made, but the long-term harm is more speculative.[11] The administration was attempting to withstand the PR fallout in the weeks before the football boycott. The boycotting of even a single football game would have significant economic consequences for the University of Missouri, including payment of a one million dollar fine to BYU within 30 days of cancelling their weekend matchup.[12] Missing out on a bowl game in the post season likely would have deprived the university of a six-figure payout.[13] The long-term effects of a boycott are less apparent, but there is evidence that undergraduate application numbers go up with the improved play of a school’s sports programs.[14]

The broader question raised by the events at Missouri concerns the proper role of athletes as activists in the push for social change on college campuses. It may seem simple to support athletes taking a leading role in the equal treatment of all students and faculty on college campuses, but in reality the issue is complex.  Some would argue that, because fans use sports as an outlet to escape the social and political issues of everyday life, athletes should “stay in their lane” and not use the sport that they play to advocate for a political or social cause – or use less serious means to accomplish their goals. Others would pose the question of whether anything at Missouri would have changed if not for these athletes’ protest. Would Tim Wolfe have resigned or been forced out as president? Would the racial inequities at Missouri have been addressed in the same way? The fact that the resignation occurred immediately after the football boycott, even though protests and meetings with the administration had been ongoing for over a month, is a strong indication that the Missouri athletes’ activism was instrumental to those changes.

So, when and how significantly should college athletes participate in social activism on campus? A strike by athletes like the one at Missouri is an extraordinary step to take. It is not an unprecedented step though, as the football team at Grambling State boycotted games in 2013 to protest unsafe athletic facilities.[15] Many of the striking Missouri football players were on full tuition scholarships because they played football. In the aftermath of Wolfe’s resignation, Missouri state legislators proposed a bill that would strip scholarships for striking.[16] This was in large part because they “‘expect[ed] the leadership of this state institution to actually lead and not allow the students to call the shots.’”[17] This would be a purely punitive punishment in response to the fight for social equality on college campuses. Empowering students and student athletes to have their voices heard on social issues does not hurt the power of administrators to lead state institutions. Also, addressing these issues is much more important than playing football games. Wolfe and other Missouri administrators could have exhibited true leadership by working proactively with concerned students to address the racial inequities that existed on Missouri’s campus. By dragging their feet, the administrators emboldened one of the most powerful student groups on campus, football players, to take a leading role in challenging the administration to address the concerns of minority students at Missouri.

The essential factors for athlete activism should be the importance of the cause and the ability to affect change. If players were to boycott over something trivial, like wanting new uniforms or a different color Gatorade on the sideline, they would be ridiculed and it might damage any future attempts at activism. There are also causes that are too difficult for one team to accomplish. If the Northwestern football team was to boycott games in an effort to unionize, for example, that move would have such a low probability of success that it would only hurt the players. Likewise, if the Alabama football team was to threaten a boycott unless the NCAA passed a resolution allowing colleges to pay players a yearly wage, it would likely fail as a singular movement. The actions by the Missouri football team appear justifiable in comparison. Combatting the inequitable treatment of certain groups of people on college campuses is an important issue. This is evidenced by the significant, continuing protests and the fact that a student was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to achieve his goals. The boycott was also likely to succeed. Besides the economic pressure exerted by the players, their participation in the protest attracted national media scrutiny that weighed heavily on the administration. Some changes were inevitably going to be made and it was likely that the university would accede to the most important of the protestors’ demands.

The Missouri strike does not establish a bright-line rule for determining when college athletes should become involved in social activism, but it does establish that there is a time and place for such actions in our society. In appropriate circumstances activism by athletes on college campuses should be encouraged and applauded.



[1] Cork Gaines, The highest-paid public employee in 39 US states is either a football or men’s basketball coach, Business Insider (Sep. 22, 2016), http://www.businessinsider.com/us-states-highest-paid-public-employee-college-coach-2016-9/#now-check-out-some-amazing-photos-from-the-rio-paralympics-12.

[2] UPDATE: Black Missouri football players plan to join Wolfe protest through boycott, Missourian (Nov. 7, 2015), http://www.columbiamissourian.com/sports/mizzou_football/update-black-missouri-football-players-plan-to-join-wolfe-protest/article_3af86734-85c4-11e5-95a7-b7f5cd4cfb9e.html.

[3] Emma Vandelinder, Racial climate at MU: A timeline of incidents this fall, Missourian (Nov. 6, 2915), http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/higher_education/racial-climate-at-mu-a-timeline-of-incidents-this-fall/article_0c96f986-84c6-11e5-a38f-2bd0aab0bf74.html.

[4] Id.

[5] Rohan Nadkarni, Why Missouri’s football team joined a protest against school administration, Sports Illustrated (Nov. 9, 2015), http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/11/09/missouri-football-protest-racism-tim-wolfe.

[6] Id.

[7] Ruth Serven, Departments state support for student group; group calls for Wolfe’s resignation, Missourian (Oct. 21, 2015), http://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/higher_education/departments-state-support-for-student-group-group-calls-for-wolfe/article_c46ec73e-7849-11e5-9edf-cf7d6918f57f.html.

[8] Vandelinder, supra note 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Phillip Bump, How the Missouri football team just took down its university president, Wash. Post (Nov. 9, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/09/missouri-football-players-and-the-untapped-political-power-of-the-college-student-athlete/.

[13] Id.

[14] Sean Silverthorne, The Flutie Effect: How Athletic Success Boosts College Applications, Forbes (Apr. 29, 2013), http://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/04/29/the-flutie-effect-how-athletic-success-boosts-college-applications/#30b03bfc6ac9.

[15] Rohan Nadkarni, Why Missouri’s football team joined a protest against school administration, Sports Illustrated (Nov. 9, 2015), http://www.si.com/college-football/2015/11/09/missouri-football-protest-racism-tim-wolfe.

[16] Tribune Wire Reports, Missouri bill would strip scholarships if athletes strike, Chicago Trib. (Dec. 15, 2015), http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/ct-missouri-bill-college-scholarships-20151215-story.html.

[17] Id.


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