by Bruce Dunlavy              (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Regular readers of my blog know I am one of those who believe that sports should not be the most important thing at a public university (even though they often are), and I certainly believe that the athletic tail wagging the academic dog contributes much to the detriment of public education at all levels.

Last week, however, we saw a different side of the athletic/academic conflict. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, members of the football team exercised their considerable power in an unprecedented way. By merely threatening not to participate in an upcoming game, they forced the resignation of the school’s two top officials, University System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. The whole process – from the players’ announcement to the resignations – took 36 hours. There was considerable negative reaction, particularly the contention that the officials hurriedly and unnecessarily caved to the demands of African-Americans who were, after all, getting a free education and bit the hand that feeds them. To suggest that is to misprise the significance of the entire story.

The events leading to the recent uproar at UM-C did not appear overnight. Columbia, Missouri, is a rather isolated small town dominated by an enormous State university. It is located far from the metropolitan centers of St. Louis and Kansas City, and is in the center of a State with a history of racial bigotry that predates the Civil War. The Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott v. Sandford  decision came from a Missouri case, and it was prompted by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that firmly cemented slavery as an essential part of the national identity. The border wars with Kansas in the 1800s sprang from the desire to keep slavery from spreading west from Missouri.

Racism still simmers in Missouri, and is often overt. My parents were residing in Columbia at the ends of their lives, and on my visits there I saw it, I heard it, and I received information about it from my father. He had been brought up in a segregated State (Oklahoma), attended a segregated State university, and served in a segregated USA military. Having grown up out of the natural prejudice of being a white person in a Jim Crow environment, he knew what he was talking about when he said of Columbia, “The people around here say they’re not racist,” he told me, “but they sure say ‘nigger’ a lot.”

So there is more than a week of history to the race problems in Columbia. The student body of UM-C is less than eight percent black, and the city and area surrounding it are also overwhelmingly white. UM-C has a Multicultural Center, and its coordinator, Stephanie Hernandez Rivera, said this in a university-released video: “It’s a very tense place, very racially tense.”

Image credit: osmins.org

Considering it all, we need to look at the timeline of the most recent occurrences:

September 12, 2015 – The president of the Missouri Student Association, Payton Head,   posts on Facebook that he was followed by a man in a truck who kept shouting “nigger” at him.
October 5 – The Legion of Black Collegians tweeted about an incident of harassment the previous evening, complaining also of half-hearted response from a campus safety officer.
October 6 – Chancellor Loftin releases a video saying, “Stop it (racial abuse) now.”
October 10 – A group calling itself Concerned 1950 (for the first year in which African-American students were admitted to UM-C) blocks a street, halting the Homecoming parade. They considered the university’s response to their concerns inadequate and confronted President Wolfe’s car.
October 13 – Aggrieved students demand that Wolfe resign or be fired.
October 24 – A swastika drawn in (presumably human) feces is discovered in a campus restroom.
October 27 – Representatives of Concerned Student 1950 meet with Wolfe and remain dissatisfied.
November 2 – Graduate student Jonathan Butler announces he is beginning a hunger strike.
November 5 – Students begin a boycott of university services.
November 6 – Wolfe is asked by students to define “systemic oppression,” and he replies, “You don’t believe you have equal opportunity for success –.” That was as far as he got before being silenced by shouts of protest. As he walks off, a student asks, “Did you just blame us? Did you just blame black students?”
November 7 – African-Americans on the university football team announce they will join in the boycott, including the next football game.
November 9 – Wolfe and Loftin resign.

Not that the story ends there. Poor choices were made and unwise actions taken by nearly all participants throughout the series of events. A popular anonymous social media site, Yik-Yak, blew up with racist commentary and death threats. Journalists across the country roared their disgust at the efforts of protesters to keep reporters and photographers from entering the area where the demonstrators were and interviewing or photographing them. A UM-C professor of media in the Department of Communication was shown calling for “muscle” to drive away a videographer. She later issued a sheepish apology for this attack on freedom of the press, but the damage inflicted on the protests in national journalism circles was profound. Demonstrators and protesters will always be held to a high standard of openness, so any effort to exert influence over the press will be scorned, and rightly so.

In the last analysis, though, this is the take-away:
Centuries of racism and decades of intolerance led to weeks of protest. Nothing was accomplished beyond nebulous platitudes and condescension. But a day and a half after the threat of “no football game” appeared, the protesters’ goals were accomplished.

Big-time college athletics are, in general, a disgrace and a perversion of the mission of higher education. Athletics has been allowed to become too big and too powerful, warping everything from budgeting to student fees to standards for admission.

However, there is one category where the overblown importance of intercollegiate athletics has been a positive force for good. That category is fighting racial discrimination. In the 1960s, desegregation of universities in the South was hastened and made more palatable to opponents because the exodus of high-quality black players from southern to northern schools (notably Bubba Smith, who starred at Michigan State in the 1960s because he could not be admitted to the University of Texas, his home-state school and his first choice) made it imperative that Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the rest allow admission to black students or they would never again be nationally competitive in football or basketball.

The University of North Carolina was eased into integration by basketball coach Dean Smith’s open recruitment of black players. When Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) started five African-Americans in the NCAA basketball championship game against the all-white University of Kentucky team in 1966, they challenged the race code for the number of black players on the floor at any one time (“one at home, two on the road, three if you’re behind”). Texas Western won, and it destroyed the notion that teams could be successful without playing the best they had regardless of color.

That’s the real potential good that big-time college athletics can accomplish. It’s not making money, it’s not “advancing the university’s brand,” it’s not the “pageantry” of college football. It’s counteracting racism. Perhaps it is time for the athletes to wield their considerable power to advance the cause more broadly.

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