*Editor’s Note: University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe resigned from his position at around the same time this article was posted*
Today, it could well be argued that no single sport has perfected the art of athletic spectacle to a greater extent than American football. Every weekend from the end of August to the beginning of February, the American public—myself included—becomes bewitched by their television screens to the exclusion of all else. Carrying our carefully cultivated loyalties in hand, we spend our Saturdays and Sundays pouring an obscene amount of emotional (and thanks to fantasy gaming—financial) investment into a game where grown men dress up futuristic soldiers and toss a oblong hunk of vulcanized rubber around. It is an seemingly trivial enterprise that tens of millions of Americans treat with the utmost seriousness, often to the exclusion of actually serious societal issues, to a degree that make the bread and circuses of the Ancient Romans look tame by comparison.
Having established its role as America’s most elaborate, lucrative and highly entertaining distraction, it should come as no surprise that many football fans tend to get upset when the real world rears its ugly head and obscures it from view. From this standpoint, it has not been a good week for those attempting to use football as their escape hatch from reality. At the beginning of the week, Deadspin released a trove of documents and photographs from the trial of Dallas Cowboys defensive end and all-around awful human being Greg Hardy for assaulting his then girlfriend. Nothing about the pictures or written records surrounding the case were surprising but, like the Ray Rice last year, they made it impossible for the casual fan to ignore the vicious inhumanity of Hardy’s crimes, although it wasn’t enough for the NFL to take any disciplinary action against Hardy before he took the field for the league’s marquee Sunday night game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, while the league’s failure to hold Hardy accountable for his barbarous behavior is a regrettable intrusion into the carefully orchestrated solemnities of the NFL schedule, the actions of the football team at the University of Missouri is a breech of the 4th wall of spectator sport that deserves not only our attention, but our applause as well. On Saturday night, the University of Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians—the black student government on campus—posted a tweet with a picture with around 30 of the black student-athletes on the Mizzou football team standing together and announcing that they would be boycotting team activities until the racial tensions on campus are addressed and university president Timothy Wolfe resigns. Less than 24 hours later, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel tweeted out a picture of himself along with the entire Missouri football team—black and white—in support of their boycotting teammates, writing “The Mizzou family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
A tweet from Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel on Sunday, showing the team’s support for its boycotting players
The boycott is not a spontaneous act, but a calculated response to months of escalating racial tension on campus that have echoed the unrest in Ferguson, a town that is only about 2 hours away from campus. It began in earnest when Missouri Student Association President Payton Head posted on his Facebook that he had been repeatedly called the N-word while walking down the street by some men in a passing pickup and that this was not the first time this year that he had been subject to such racial abuse. Roughly a month later, after racial slurs were yelled at members of the Legion of Black Collegians, members of a group called Concerned Student 1950—so named for the year the first black student was admitted at Missouri—confronted President Wolfe at a homecoming parade and blocked his car in protest for 15 minutes until university police forced them to disperse. However, tensions didn’t truly begin to boil over until two weeks ago when a swastika that had been drawn with human feces was found on a dormitory wall on campus. At that point, President Wolfe finally met with members of Concerned Student 1950, but refused to accept any of their demands.
On November 2nd, Jonathan Butler, a 25 year old graduate student at Missouri announced that he would be going on a hunger strike until President Wolfe was removed from his position. In an impassioned letter addressed to the university, Butler wrote down the rationale behind his potentially fatal decision to go on hunger strike, saying that, “the revolting acts that are occurring at Mizzou are a result of a poisonous infestation of apathy that has been spawning from University of Missouri system leadership” and likening university president Wolfe to “dead and decaying flesh” that must be cleaned from an open wound before healing can begin.
In a statement on Sunday night, Coach Pinkel confirmed the team’s support for the boycott that had been presumed from the photo tweeted out earlier in the day, saying that his focus, along with that of his players and staff, is to work with the Mizzou community and try to address the issues currently plaguing them. In an era where it is so commonplace to see coaches at both the college and professional levels placing on-the-field production above all else, it is heartening to see a coach willing to stand behind his players, even if it could mean the loss of the football season and even the loss of his job. Likewise, the 32 black football players who have taken the initiative in organizing this boycott—along with the rest of their teammates who have decided to stand behind them—have shown the vibrancy of their true colors in risking their scholarships and, for some, their chance at playing in the NFL to combat the institutionalized racism that has infected the University of Missouri campus.
The fact that these student athletes who have toiled for the bulk of their young lives to be able to don a helmet and pads and take the field on a handful of autumn Saturdays would feel they had no choice but to sacrifice their passion and potential career for the sake of their peers of color should tell us outsiders all we need to know about the toxicity of the climate at the University of Missouri. As Jonathan Butler wrote in his letter to his community before the start of his hunger strike, any community where people feel comfortable smearing shit in the shape of a swastika across dormitory halls is one that has been poisoned by racial hatred to the point that only a purging of those who have aided and abetted in its creation can bring about healing.
Many who oppose the actions of these student athletes will invoke the fallacious notion that politics and sport should be kept separate, failing to realize that their argument actually confirms the very necessity of the boycott being carried out by these student athletes. Without the actions of these football players, the unrest at the University of Missouri would have likely remained a regional issue—something that was rarely discussed outside of the confines of campus. However, in the wake this boycott, the story has become national news and the struggle for racial justice at Mizzou has become a topic of discussion in homes all across America. In a country where we have an entire TV network devoted to the athletic conference in which Missouri plays and none focused on race relations, making sport political is sometimes the only way to get folks to sit up and take notice.