Walkouts and protests have been a part of campus life in America since at least the 1960s. But the unrest over racial slurs at the University of Missouri that led to the resignation of the president Monday featured 32 unusual activists – members of the football team.
The declaration of all of the team’s minority players this weekend that they would not take the field until President Timothy Wolfe stepped down may have tipped the balance, local and national press suggested. It points to a growing trend toward activism by student athletes, who in the past have tended to stay on the sidelines when it came to issues of social justice. And it comes amid a year of protests and national debate over race relations that some have likened to a new civil rights era.
“Campuses, among other spaces, have always been sites for discussing structures of oppression…. What’s different about Mizzou is that protests almost exclusively come from social justice groups. It was interesting the way athletics leveraged their power,” says Jennifer Stollman, academic director at the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
Last fall, Oklahoma football players skipped practice to demand punishment of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity for a racist chant caught on video. Also in 2014, for the first time in history, college football players at Northwestern University sought to unionize. (Their bid was denied by the National Labor Relations Board in August.)
“If there is one large takeaway from all that has gone on at Mizzou in the past few days, it’s that student-athletes, and football players in particular, are no longer just names and numbers,” the online sports website Bleacher Report wrote Monday. “They are a powerful group that is just scratching the surface on their potential for societal change inside and outside their university communities. More to the point, players are now combining that power with an unfiltered medium in social media.”
President Wolfe’s decision to resign came amid criticisms over what campus groups called his inadequate response to racial harassment and concerns of minority students in the school.
“It is my belief we stopped listening to each other. We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening, and quit intimidating each other,” Wolfe said Monday. “I stand before you today and I take full responsibility for this frustration. And I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred.”
Students and faculty had staged a walkout to protest Wolfe’s response to a series of racist incidents that occurred on campus over the last few months, including the harassment of black students with racial slurs and a swastika drawn with feces on a dormitory bathroom.
When black protesters tried to get Wolfe’s attention during a homecoming parade Oct. 10, he would not get out of his car, the university paper reported. On Nov. 2, graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike that he said would not end until Wolfe stepped down.
The situation gained nationwide attention Saturday, when more than 30 members of the school’s football team, including several stars, announced they would boycott all football-related activities until Wolfe resigned. On Sunday, Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel canceled practice and took to Twitter to announce his support for the players’ call for change.
The move put more pressure on Wolfe, who suddenly had a $1 million penalty on the line for Missouri if the school did not play its scheduled game against Brigham Young University on Nov. 14.
“That the athletic department stood behind its students is astounding,” says Professor Stollman. “It was a constellation of many forces and voices coming together. It was a marshaling of academics, student affairs, and athletics. All these entities … have tremendous power.”
Not everyone was praising Wolfe’s decision to resign. In an editorial, the National Review called Monday’s announcement “an extraordinary act of cowardice by the university.”
“[T]he University of Missouri is not besieged by the Ku Klux Klan. It is besieged by hysteria,” the editors wrote. “Hysteria needs to be stood up to, not cravenly fed with acquiescence.”
The events at the University of Missouri carry the weight of recent racial conflicts in nearby Ferguson, where the death of Michael Brown last year became a flashpoint for racial discourse across the country.
“They are giving us a heads up that they are not going to tolerate [inequity],” Garrett Duncan, an associate professor of education and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, says of student activists today.
Similar discussions around race are occurring in college campuses elsewhere, some experts note, and university leaders are wrestling daily to balance a welcoming and productive learning environment with the free exchange of ideas.
At the University of Mississippi, administrators furled the Confederate-themed state flag and moved it from campus earlier this month, after students, faculty, and staff called for its removal in the wake of debate around the Confederacy’s role in US history.
Yale University President Peter Salovey on Thursday apologized to a group of minority students following a debate over how the administration handled concerns about Halloween costumes considered culturally offensive, and accusations that a fraternity had denied a black student entrance to a “white girls only” party on the basis of her race. (The fraternity has since denied the allegations, The New York Times reports.)
“It’s not the first time we see these sorts of issues emerge,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education’s division of government and public affairs. “The challenge for any campus leader is to act quickly, act empathetically, be driven by institutional values – and to get it right.”