I wasn't alive in the 50s and 60s and 70s when mass boycotts to protest racial injustice was more commonplace and more infused with our national cultural zeitgeist. I, like most of you, am very aware of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other, less publicized, boycotts (like the New Orleans citizens boycott). But, again, reading about the spirit of a time in a textbook and hearing about it from your parents is a vastly different experience than living through it.
I am, however, old enough to remember the late 80s and the 90s. As well as (obviously) the last 15 years. And I can honestly say that I have never seen a more meaningful and more effective American boycott than the one staged by the University of Missouri football players, whose actions forced President Tim Wolfe to resign.
Now, there have been other boycotts and protests where the stakes were higher. The recent unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland and other cities — as well as the #BlackLivesMatter movement — happened as a result of actual lives being taken by law enforcement. And, while the conditions at Missouri have apparently been racially antagonistic for some time, there's no real comparison between that and the unjust murder of another human being. But this particular act, this present-day congealing of our racial, athletic, academic, and political worlds, will resonate for decades and might fundamentally alter revenue-generating college athletics, college itself, and, to quote Dr. David Leonard, the "religiosity of American sports culture."
This is some major shit.
Because, as absurd and problematic as the countless calls for the players to have their scholarships revoked were, it's equally absurd that a couple dozens or so kids threatening to not play one football game had such an extensive and decisive impact — on the college, the state, the conference, and the nation — that it took less than 72 hours to get the university president out. It's nothing short of amazing that those kids had the wherewithal and courage to put their scholarships and livelihoods (current and future) on the line to stand up for what they believed in, and it's nothing short of terrifying that nothing anyone else on that campus would have done would have mattered the same way. No hunger strikes — and thank you, Jonathan Butler, for sparking this flame — no protests, no petitions signed by students and teachers, no votes of no confidence would have earned the same result as quickly.
Well, it's not terrifying to me. But it should be to every Division I football and basketball coach in the country, and every administrator who happens to be at a school where the head ball coach makes 10 times as much money as the chancellor. This could very well be the college athlete's Neo in the hallway moment; when this exclusive and presumably powerless and thoughtless population becomes fully aware of the power they possess. And if this does happen — if this collection of young and mostly Black men continues to decide to wield this power — it will reverberate down (to high school sports) and up (to professional sports). And then there will be more serious conversations about taking fundamental steps to pull the plug on this power. On reexamining our country's relationship with sports.
And then, well, and then we'll see what happens next.