Mizzou Football Sets Precedent for Student-Athlete Activism

Nov 12, 2015

Mizzou football teammates congregate at the Concerned Student 1950 demonstration on Nov. 9, 2015.
Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA

As the dust settles at the University of Missouri this week, two university administrators’ jobs have been left in the wake. Students have been protesting a lack of action on the university’s part to racist incidents on campus.

The situation made national headlines when the school’s football team got involved to support the cause. Experts say that kind of student-athlete influence is growing and universities have to pay attention to that economic and cultural pull.

Racial issues have been festering at Mizzou for so long and seen such little response from the administration that the group Concerned Student 1950 decided it was time to call for System President Tim Wolfe’s job. Member Jonathan Butler started a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until Wolfe was removed or resigned.

Five days later, black members of the football team tweeted support.  Professor of higher education Eddie Comeaux says that’s when he thinks the tide turned for administration.

“It wasn’t until the athletic department, specifically the football team got involved that they actually began to think about what they can do to appease a critical mass of students who certainly had some demands on the table,” he said.

Comeaux, who teaches at UC Riverside, says a bottom line administrators can’t ignore is the economic powerhouse of the football team, especially one in the Southeastern Conference.

“When you have schools who rely on ticket sales where they are drawing 80,000 plus fans, to say that you’re going to boycott a game and not participate, I mean you might be losing excess of a million dollars per Saturday,” he said.

Indeed, the team’s involvement in the cause pushed the deadline up for the university to respond to Butler’s demand – with a $1 million penalty on the line for missing the next game. Although the multimillion-dollar athletic program could likely afford that, it’s no couch change.

Now, historically, we’ve seen athletes stand up for issues such as facility conditions, concussive injury prevention and economic exploitation of their images. Comeaux says the Mizzou situation is different, though, and possibly transformative for future student movements.

“What I see unique about this situation more than anything is the fact that not only did it include athletes, it included their non-athlete peers that initiated this movement,” he said.

Many of these college athletes at Mizzou are students who are growing up in a post-Fergusson and Black Lives Matter world, where public rallies against discrimination has become more common and effective through social media and demonstrations.

Another place we can see the shift in power is how quickly head coach Gary Pinkel and Athletic Director Mack Rhoades fell in line to support the team.  That wasn’t the case when Northwestern football players recently tried to unionize.

Pinkel told reporters this week that his individual support of the cause and the hunger strike wasn’t why he backed his players.

“It had nothing to do with that.,” he said. “It simply had to do with my players deeply cared about this guy and he was dying. And will you support me coach? And that’s what I did.”

Christopher Morphew is the associate dean of education at the University of Iowa.  He says for the coach, it goes beyond a maintaining a sense of community and safety for his players.

“The coach has to think about ‘what is my ability to bring in high quality players, many of whom are African American into this community and onto this team if I don’t get behind my players in the instance,’” he said.

Morphew says universities should take the protests and resignations that went down in Missouri as a tale of caution.

“I think it’s more likely that student-athletes in the future will believe that they can have an impact on campus proceedings and have an impact on campus crisis,” he said.

Professor Eddie Comeaux agrees.

“Many of students have found or are finding their voice,” he said. “They understand what’s at stake here. They understand that movements don’t happen the way that they happened in the ‘60s.”

Ultimately, Morphew says with the economic and political influence student athletes are realizing they have, universities should take heed.

“This should behoove leaders to believe that when they are surrounded by students at an event and they essentially refuse to engage with the students over and over again, that can have a very important impact on their tenure as a leader on campus,” he said.

Morphew says don’t expect the field hockey team to have the same impact, but don’t be surprised to see more cross-campus support for causes among athletes and non-athletes.