Escalating protests at the University of Missouri over longstanding racism and systemic apathy to it got an electrifying boost over the weekend when Mizzou's disproportionate number of African-American football players, swiftly followed by their teammates and staff, declared that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and refused to play until protesters' demands are met. On Monday, they got what they wanted: The school's president resigned, followed shortly by the resignation of the school's chancellor. Economics 101: See black labor stop the college football industry in its multi-million-dollar tracks. Tweeted one player, "Social change is a beautiful thing."
Just two hours west of Ferguson, the Columbia campus "has always been a school uneasy with race." Its student body of 35,000 is just 7% African-American and almost 80% white, with many students from middle-class St. Louis suburbs; in contrast, 58 of the school's 84 scholarship football players are black, as are over half of the Tigers' current roster. The school's decades of racial grievances were stoked after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown and its subsequent turmoil - on campus, Thomas Jefferson met with a flood of insults - were met with silence from the administration of President Tim Wolfe. They've been further inflamed by a recent spate of racist incidents, including epithets yelled, swastikas smeared, an ugly confrontation between Wolfe and protesters, cutting grad students' health care and ending a Planned Parenthood contract.
In response, black students led by Concerned Student 1950 - the year the university accepted its first black student - decided to make change on their own. Amidst ongoing unrest and a newly published list of demands, graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike to protest "a poisonous infestation of apathy that has been spawning from University of Missouri system leadership.” Now in his eighth day, he says he will not eat until Wolfe resigns. Saturday night, at least 32 black football players joined in his demand, announcing they would not play, practise or otherwise participate in team activities until Wolfe is removed "due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences." “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,” they tweeted with a group photo of them linking arms. "WE ARE UNITED!!!!!” Head coach Gary Pinkel, who makes $4 million a year, quickly cancelled Sunday practice and posted a message of solidarity with the entire team and staff: "The Mizzou Family stands as one."
Since then, hundreds of students have sat in, teachers and grad students alike have called for walk-outs starting Monday, several lawmakers have urged Wolfe to resign, and a special meeting of the school's governing board is scheduled for today. Here as elsewhere, it must be noted, money talks: School leaders have paid attention, not so much because one guy may starve to death, but largely because a bunch of football players decided to put their humanity ahead of their sports career; as a possible result, cancelling the Tigers' next game Saturday could cost the school over $1 million, with huge losses to a community-wide, multi-pronged, football-fueled economy. The reality here and across America, notes Dave Zirin, is that, "There is no football team without black labor...(And if players) aren’t happy with the grind of unpaid labor on a campus openly hostile to black students, they can take it it all down, just by putting down their helmets, hanging up their spikes, and folding their arms." Players, meanwhile, are exhilarated by their new-found power. Says one, “Never thought I would be in place or time like this to actually make a difference.”