Why student-athlete activism is rattling cages

State legislators in Missouri have proposed a bill that would strip scholarships from student-athletes who boycott games. It hints at a resurgence of 1960s-era athlete activism.

Nick Schnelle/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP/File
Forrmer Missouri receiver L'Damian Washington, left, speaks with tailback Russell Hansbrough and other football players outside of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 8. State representatives are proposing a bill that would take scholarships away from Missouri student athletes if they refuse to play.

A proposed bill in the Missouri legislature that would strip scholarships from student-athletes who boycott indicates the reemergence of a decades-old conflict between student-athletes and a society still not altogether comfortable with their embrace of political power. 

“This [bill] fits into a broader pattern of resistance to student-athlete activism,” says Gregory Kaliss, a historian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and author of the book, “Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality.”

The Missouri legislators, he says, are “uneasy about the fact that these athletes have power and ideas and voices that run counter to what they want them to have. This is a kind of power play: ‘We’re the ones who are in charge and not you.’ ”

While campuses nationwide have been alight with protest movements demanding a greater voice for minority students this fall, the activism at the University of Missouri stands apart: It is the only university where a president has stepped down. But that didn't happen until the minority football players, with head coach Gary Pinkel’s support, said they would not take the field until President Timothy Wolfe resigned – a move that may have tipped the balance, local and national press suggested.

"What is clear is that a dormant voice awoke this year with enormous implications. Of all the sports stories of the year, Missouri was the most powerful," wrote ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant.

House Bill 1743, which State Rep. Rick Brattin (R) of Harrisonville filed Monday, seeks to revoke the scholarship of “any college athlete who calls, incites, supports, or participates in any strike or concerted refusal to play a scheduled game.” The legislation also calls for fines for coaching staff who support or encourage athletes to participate in such actions.

“Athletics has a prominent place in big, major schools,” Dr. Kaliss says. “Athletes have a certain amount of clout, a certain amount of power, they bring in a lot of money.”

In effect, “When the University of Missouri athletes decided to stand against the racist environment at Mizzou, they began to hold the purse strings hostage,” says Maurice Hobson, assistant professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University.

State Rep. Kurt Bahr (R) of O’Fallon, who co-sponsored the bill, said the strike prompted him to reconsider the relationship between student-athletes and the institutions for which they play.

“The student has a right to protest or to make their voice heard,” he told the Kansas City Star. “But if they have a contract to perform certain duties, and they violate that contract … then it’s not an issue of the First Amendment. It’s an issue of contract law. They failed to uphold that contract.”

But others question that line of thinking, arguing that it discourages students from exercising their rights and thinking critically about important issues.

“Students have every right to exercise power,” says Randal Jelks, professor of American studies and African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “I think one of the functions of a college or university is to help develop engaged, thoughtful citizens – to help students become more informed, more involved, and more active in local and national communities.”

“If athletes are becoming informed, becoming involved, becoming more engaged, then … we should not be punishing them [for that],” he adds.

‘Stick to basketball’

Resistance to athlete activism is hardly new, Professor Jelks and others note.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali faced sharp public criticism when, despite being drafted, he refused to enlist in the Vietnam War, saying, “I am not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.”

He was subsequently charged with draft evasion, before the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

In an opinion article for Time magazine, basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – who supported Mr. Ali during that period and has long advocated for equality and civil rights – writes of the opposition he continues to face when he presents himself as an activist and political commentator.

Despite the fact that I’ve been writing about politics longer than I played basketball, many of my critics begin their comments with, “Stick to basketball, Kareem.” But … [b]y dismissing someone’s opinions based on profession, such critics are also dismissing their own opinions as frivolous (“Stick to plumbing!” “Stick to tax dodging!” “Stick to proctology!”). Whose vocation makes them an expert on all social or political matters? As we’ve seen during the presidential campaign, even the candidates aren’t experts.”

To some, the Missouri bill speaks to a broader culture that sees athletes – even student-athletes – primarily as workers.

“The idea around this is, ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat,’ ” says Professor Hobson, who played college football for the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the mid-1990s. “To hang that over these young people’s heads, particularly some that may not be able to attend college by other means – it really positions the idea that values the body over the mind.”

Former Missouri safety Ian Simon, who was among the leaders of the boycott, told the Columbia Missourian: “They want to call us student-athletes, but they keep us out of the student part of it. [But] I’m more than just a football player. … Our sport is just a small part of who we are.”

‘A resurgence of consciousness’

For college athletes, especially in universities where sports generates tremendous revenue, there is a growing awareness of the considerable clout they wield, some say.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of consciousness where [student-athletes] are saying, ‘I do a service for the university, and I can make a decision,’ ” Hobson says.

Such consciousness, he and others say, is a throwback to the civil rights protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when athletes – both college and professional – used their positions to take a visible stand on the issues of the day: As a player for the basketball team at the University of California in Los Angeles, Hall of Famer Bill Walton participated in protests against Vietnam. 

African-American Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith became symbols of the civil rights movement when they raised their fists in a Black Power salute upon receiving their medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

And when boxing legend Muhammad Ali was convicted of draft evasion, other athletes – Mr. Abdul-Jabbar as well as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Bobby Mitchell – threw their support behind him.

“I’m seeing when Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar more than 40 years ago stood up and said, ‘We’re not down with this,’ ” says Garrett Duncan, an assistant professor of African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “And I see these modern-day athletes, and they are part of a tradition of athletes who say [to the system], ‘Yeah, we’ll play for you, but you need to play for us.’ ”

Athlete activism dimmed in the late 1980s and 1990s, in part due to growing concerns around losing endorsements in the face of bad publicity. But the events at Mizzou and other universities – Oklahoma football players skipping practice to protest a racist chant, for instance, and Northwestern University athletes’ bid to unionize – suggest that a “spirit of activism,” as Kaliss puts it, is returning amid a broader wave of advocacy for black and minority communities.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that where we see athletes getting involved is down the road from Ferguson,” Kaliss says, referring to the Missouri city where the protest movement erupted in August 2014 after teenager Michael Brown was shot by a police officer.

Indeed, for some, the events at the University of Missouri and beyond herald the beginning of a broader shift in the role athletes can and will play in driving change and shaping public discourse.

“The conventional wisdom seems to be that athletes should never step outside their roles as entertainers to pontificate,” Abdul-Jabbar writes for Time. “That attitude is a stereotype of the dumb jock who is too busy jamming smart, adorkable kids into lockers to know anything about the world around them except what Coach tells them.

“Those days are over, folks.”

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