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Black athletes unbound: Missouri protest a sign of a renewed spirit of activism in college sports?

By J.A. Salaam and Brian E. Muhammad - Final Call Staff Writers | Last updated: Nov 11, 2015 - 7:37:39 AM

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Tweet accompanying photo reads: ‘We’re Black. Black is powerful. Our struggle may look different, but we are all’ #ConcernedStudent1950. Grad. Student Jonathan Butler said the athletes wanted to join the struggle for justice on campus.

ST. LOUIS—When Black students at the University of Missouri came together to force the resignation of university president Tim Wolfe, and the university chancellor, it was the culmination of years of complaints about the problem of racism at the school.

But the entry of Black football players, who vowed not to play or practice until President Wolfe was ousted, decided the matter. What started as 30 Black players in support of Jonathan Butler, a grad student who was on a hunger strike, grew into a strike backed by the entire football team and coach Brian Pinkel.

University of Missouri students make a show of unity.

The threat to not play could have cost the university millions of dollars, starting with a $1 million payment to Brigham Young University if the Mizzou team didn’t take to the field on an upcoming Saturday. The football program brought in $83.7 million in revenue in 2014. One newspaper reported the university football program had a profit of $6 million.

“Pointing out racism, injustice, etc. many times simply isn’t enough. Racists know they’re racists. But to really bring about change, you have to economically impact the people in power. Then you’ll see decisions made at the speed of light,” former NBA star and activist Etan Thomas posted on Twitter Nov. 9 about the weight of athletes engaging in a boycott. Mr. Wolfe had stepped down the same day. Next came the departure of the chancellor.

“When you give young people space, they can find their own solutions,” said activist Tory Russell, who traveled the two hours from St. Louis to Columbia, Mo., where the university is located.

Mr. Russell has been active in the protest movement that exploded in Ferguson, Mo., over a year ago. Ferguson, a Black suburb of St. Louis, was referenced by the college students as a major impetus for their struggle, he said.

Young people were talking about economics and how to shape the type of society they wanted to live in, said young leader, who helped found Hands Up United!, an activist organization.

These aren’t necessarily poor people but people who are educated and taking a stand, he added.

The students had complained about a lack of action and lack of engagement from President Wolfe, who rebuffed them at a homecoming protest this year.

Fall incidents have included the n----r epithet hurled at the university’s student government president, who is Black. Before the president’s resignation a swastika was scrawled on a wall in human feces.

A former business executive with no previous experience in academic leadership, Mr. Wolfe took “full responsibility for the frustration” students expressed and said their complaints were “clear” and “real.”

The complaints came to a head Nov. 7, when at least 30 Black football players announced that they would not play until the president was gone.

Mr. Wolfe’s announcement came at the start of what had been expected to be a lengthy closed-door meeting of the school’s governing board.

“This is not the way change comes about,” he said, alluding to recent protests, in a halting statement that was simultaneously apologetic, clumsy and defiant. “We stopped listening to each other.”

He urged students, faculty and staff to use the resignation “to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary.”

The school’s undergraduate population is 79 percent White and 8 percent Black. The state is about 83 percent White and nearly 12 percent Black.

As students leveled more grievances this fall, Mr. Wolfe was increasingly seen as aloof, out of touch and insensitive to their concerns. He soon became the protesters’ main target.

Black students block car carrying then university President Wolfe at homecoming. He refused to stop the car and talk with students.

In a statement issued Nov. 8, Mr. Wolfe acknowledged that “change is needed” and said the university was working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance. But by the end of that day, a campus sit-in had grown in size, graduate student groups planned walkouts and politicians began to weigh in.

After his resignation announcement, students and teachers in Columbia hugged and chanted.

Coach Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades linked the return of the football players to the end of a hunger strike by graduate student Butler, who had stopped eating Nov. 2.

After Mr. Wolfe’s announcement, Mr. Butler said in a tweet that his strike was over. He appeared weak and unsteady as two people helped him into a sea of celebrants on campus. Many broke into dance at seeing him.

Football practice was to resume Nov. 10 ahead of a Nov. 14 game against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.

In early October, members of a Black student organization said slurs were hurled at them by an apparently drunken White student.

Frustrations flared again during a homecoming parade, when Black protesters blocked Mr. Wolfe’s car, and he did not get out and talk to them. They were removed by police.

The university did take some steps to ease tensions. At the request of Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, the top administrator for the Columbia campus, the school announced plans to offer diversity training to all new students starting in January, as well as faculty and staff. The chancellor also issued an open letter decrying racism after the swastika was found.

Some students expressed little confidence that the promised training would yield lasting results. Chancellor Bowen stepped down Nov. 9.

Many of the protests have been led by an organization called Concerned Student 1950, which gets its name from the year the university accepted its first Black student.

The group demanded, among other things, that Mr. Wolfe resign and “acknowledge his White male privilege.” It also sought a 10-year plan to retain more marginalized students and the hiring of more minorities at the university’s counseling center.

Also joining in the protest effort were two graduate student groups that called for walkouts and the student government at the Columbia campus, the Missouri Students Association.

The association said the president had “not only enabled a culture of racism since the start of his tenure in 2012, but blatantly ignored and disrespected the concerns of students.”

Mr. Wolfe, 57, was hired as president in 2011, succeeding another former executive with no experience in academia.

Activism among young people has seen a spectacular increase since the killing of Mike Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed Black male in Ferguson by a White police officer, a rebellion and heavily armed police, National Guardsmen, nonlethal weapons and tear gas in 2014.

The mass entry of the Missouri athletes marked an important turn, a turn that harkened back to the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time there was a surge in activism among major sports figures. Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion, joined the Nation of Islam, stood for Black equality and opposed the Vietnam War; football star Jim Brown was outspoken on racial and economic issues and organized other athletes; while gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos launched the unforgettable black-gloved Black Power fist protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.

In recent years professional athletes stood in solidarity with those calling for justice for Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, rejected racist diatribes by Donald Sterling, forcing the Los Angeles Clippers owner to sell the team and last year Los Angeles Ram players engaged in a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest that was associated with demonstrations tied to the killing of young Brown.

Today’s controlled professional and collegiate sports have often been described by critics as plantations where White billionaires control multi-million dollar talent that says nothing about racial or social issues.

Tony Muhammad, student minister and Western Region Representative for the Nation of Islam, called the athletes part of a fearless “Joshua generation.”

“These athletes are taking on the spirit of the Jim Browns’, the Carlos Smiths’, the Muhammad Ali’s—and they have power beyond our wildest imagination. When they decide not to play in the big arenas—which is the modern day gladiators—it shows that our athletes and entertainers, once united, have power,” said Student Minister Muhammad, who is based in Los Angeles.

He also attributes some of the campus activism to college visits by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan in recent years, culminating with the highly successful “Justice Or Else!” gathering in Washington, D.C., in early October that marked the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March.

“This is about to happen at many other universities across this country,” Mr. Muhammad predicted. “History is beginning to repeat itself until it corrects itself.” Systemic racism and racial tension is happening throughout America and backlash against injustice isn’t over, he said. “The students are realizing the strength in their unity.”

“Black Lives Matter has done a very good job of revitalizing and rekindling the Black Power movement,” said Greg Akili, a Los Angeles-based organizer. “But equally as important is the work that has gone on in between because had there not been activism, had the (Nation of Islam) not been steady in its position than there wouldn’t be anything for Black Lives Matter to connect to,” Mr. Akili said.

Mr. Akili has lived through the ebb and flow of the Black Power struggle and is happy to see renewed energy, activism and resistance.

The resignation of Mr. Wolfe was a direct victory for those challenging injustice, he said.

“It’s a continuation of a consistent and regular struggle that we have been engaged in since the day we got here and even before the day we got here,” said Mr. Akili. “I think that it should be recognized acknowledged and admired that the students and athletes at Missouri said ‘we are not going to take this.’”

Students also say resignations aren’t the end, but a beginning to force the university to be better and fairer.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report from Columbia, Mo.)