The University of Missouri football team just got the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, to resign.
Usually when you hear about a college president resigning in relation to athletics, a scandal has occurred and a combination of money, drugs and criminal behavior by some college players has forced him or her to step down. In this case, however, African-American football players banded together to boycott games unless the college president resigned. And in a move that will strike fear in the hearts of university presidents everywhere, within 48 hours Wolfe was out. We’re in a new era of the American athlete, and now everyone is on notice.
Athletes can have a huge impact on social-justice causes when they open their mouths, wear armbands or don T-shirts. They do, however, take serious risks with their brand and livelihood when they take a stand on issues that white fans in particular may find controversial.
This is especially the case on a college campus where players are dependent on school scholarships for tuition, housing and meals. Any behavior viewed as problematic can get your scholarship snatched, and you’ve lost not only your chance at a free education but also the chance to play professionally. So when athletes step up at the college level, it’s an exercise of power in the face of backlash that can’t be ignored.
Racial incidents have been plaguing the 7 percent African-American population at Mizzou (out of 35,000 total students) over the last year. Racial slurs were hurled at black students practicing a homecoming play. The black class president was racially harassed while walking home. A swastika of feces was smeared on a campus building.
Concerned Students 1950 (named after the first year black students were allowed at the school) wrote letters and sought investigations into these incidents, but Wolfe did nothing but talk. When they called for his resignation, the school trustees and curators did nothing. When a black graduate student, Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike until Wolfe was fired or resigned, the board of curators did nothing.
But when more than 30 African-American football players on the Missouri Tigers said that they weren’t going to practice, train or play any football games until Wolfe was gone? Things got real. Forty-eight hours after the first missed practice Nov. 7, Wolfe announced his resignation.
On the college level, football equals big money, even for teams that aren’t nationally famous. The Missouri Tigers have a rabid fan base, from all over the country, who spend millions of dollars every season on tickets, concessions and merchandise. Even though the team has a lousy 1-5 record this year, it’s set to bring in about $35 million to the college system before expenses. Had the players just boycotted one game this weekend against Brigham Young University, it would have cost the school almost $1 million.
Wolfe didn’t step down out of a crisis of conscience or even “love,” as he said in his nicely passive-aggressive press conference Monday morning. He stepped down because of black-student-athlete power and money.
Thousands of influential Mizzou alumni couldn’t care less about social justice, racism or the protection of African-American students. They like football and tailgating every Saturday. And if firing Wolfe and addressing some racism gets them back in the parking lot with a beer and a brat watching black men run up and down a field this Saturday, so be it.
At the end of the day, there are lots of people who can serve as a college president, but there aren’t nearly as many who can break four tackles for a score on third and 7. Let’s just hope that other prominent college football teams see the power that was shown by the Missouri Tigers today: that if you stay organized and unified, you don’t have to just run the field; you can run your school.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.