The power of football activism

They rape. They steal. They commit academic fraud. They drink and drive. They sue to be compensated like professionals when they receive full-ride scholarships while living and training in luxury. So many headlines about college athletes are unpleasant, a source of continuing frustration when their presence allows them broad opportunities to effect powerful social changes on their campuses and beyond.

Which is why the events of Monday, in Columbia, Mo., were so stirring and monumental.

“Football,” as Gary Pinkel said, “became secondary.”

Let members of the University of Missouri football team serve as robust examples for the range of possibilities when athletes do become thoughtful activists. They can, for one, use leverage to topple a dawdling, inept school president and then the chancellor in one historic swoop. In a state rocked by racial tension, on a campus 120 miles west of Ferguson, dozens of the team’s black players and their supportive head coach, Pinkel, made the right kind of headlines: They took a solidarity stance against President Timothy M. Wolfe for what minority students said was a slow administrative response to a series of disturbing campus episodes. A storm that should have been addressed by Wolfe in September — racial slurs shouted at the president of student government, who is black — exploded into similar incidents and the drawing of a feces-smeared swastika on a wall in a dorm bathroom. During a homecoming parade in October, Wolfe refused to meet with black protesters when they tried to block his car. The disturbances led to rampant calls for the resignation of Wolfe, a 57-year-old former software executive who was named president of the university system’s four campuses in 2011 with no prior experience in academia.

But it wasn’t until Saturday night that the mechanism for Wolfe’s ouster was set into motion. That’s when the football players said they would stop participating in practice sessions and threatened to boycott this weekend’s game agaianst BYU in Kansas City. More than 30 players posed for a photo with 25-year-old grad student Jonathan Butler, who was staging an eight-day hunger strike, and the photo was posted on Twitter. Alongside it was a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice Everywhere.’ We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!”

Suddenly, this no longer was a story in the heartland that few around the country knew much about. The involvement of the football players had turned it into a national hotpoint, spurring discussion on the Sunday morning news shows. In the world of a businessman running a sports-factory university, the players hit Wolfe exactly where it hurt: on the spreadsheet. With the boycott threat, the university could have lost more than $3 million for a forfeiture that would have required a $1 million reimbursement to BYU and refunds to ticket buyers. ESPN, too, would have wanted money back for losing its telecast. Sweating, Wolfe released a statement Sunday instead of talking to the students directly, saying he didn’t intend to resign. “My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters,” Wolfe said.

He was much too late. Pinkel already had tweeted his own photo — the players gathered as one with Pinkel and his staff, everyone locked in arms — accompanied by his own statement: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.” The gesture was courageous and fearless, because for all Pinkel knew, he could have been fired on the spot by Wolfe for orchestrating a coup. For once, this was an instance of a successful football coach using his power in a productive way, rather than calling down to the cop shop to spring a star player or contacting a booster to pay off a recruit. Fifteen years ago, Pinkel arrived at a middle-of-the-road program and eventually led the Tigers into the national elite. He gave the school just enough sports clout to draw an invite into the prestigious Southeastern Conference. No one in Tuscaloosa and Gainesville really grasped why Mizzou was in the SEC — until Pinkel quickly won two East division titles.

Did he have ulterior motives? Oh, it doesn’t hurt in the recruiting wars when a white coach in the state of Missouri bands together with his black players in an anti-racism stance. And it’s doubtful the players and coaches would have been as rebellious if, say, they were shooting for a spot in the College Football Playoff instead of fighting for a winning season at 4-5. But once football solidarity was in place, the student body responded with more bodies beside Butler at a sit-in that started Nov. 2. By Monday morning, Wolfe was cornered. Instead of attending a closed-door meeting with the school’s governing board, he resigned.

“This is not the way change comes about,” Wolfe said. “We stopped listening to each other.

“The frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don’t doubt it for a second. I take full responsibility for this frustration and I take full responsibility for the inaction that has occurred. Use my resignation to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary.”

All of those thoughts should have been shared weeks ago, months ago. It took the football team to bring them out — and sweep him out. Former Missouri player Michael Sam, who made news last year when he came out as gay before the NFL draft, visited Butler last Wednesday before he ended his hunger strike Monday.

“There was nobody here. Two tents and a reporter,” Sam said. “Things change when sports gets involved.”

This is what happened on campuses back in the day, when athletes felt comfortable challenging authority amid Vietnam and Watergate protests. In a billion-dollar industry in which they’re getting their room, board, tutition, cost of attendance and exposure, athletes have every right to use their visibility and status in productive ways. They are strongly encouraged, in fact.

“We just wanted to use our platform to take a stance as fellow concerned students on an issue that has special meaning, as a fellow black man’s life was on the line,” senior safety Ian Simon said. “We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that — a game. Through this experience, we really began to bridge the gap between student and athlete — and the phrase ‘student-athlete’ — by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture. We will continue to build with the community and support positive change on the Mizzou campus.”

Said sophomore defensive end Charles Harris: “Let this be a testament to all athletes across the country that you do have power. It started with a few individuals on our team and look what it’s become. This is nationally known.”

But only because Pinkel knew to engage when other coaches would have repelled. “I got involved because I support my players and a young man’s life was on the line,” he Pinkel, referring to Butler. “It had nothing to do with anyone losing their job. They were concerned about a young man’s life. I’m talking to guys who have tears in their eyes, and they wanted to know if I would support them. I said I would. I did the right thing and would do it again.

“Obviously, we’ve got some problems. The good news is, we’re gonna fix them, and Mizzou’s gonna be a lot better place for it.”

Go ahead and watch the final two months of games, the playoffs, the title matchup. There will not be a bigger victory this year than the one in Missouri.

Or any year.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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