Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Missouri football players’ bold stand a lesson for nation still grappling with race relations

University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. Wolfe has been under fire for his handling of race complaints that had threatened to upend the football season and moved one student to go on a hunger strike.
University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. Wolfe has been under fire for his handling of race complaints that had threatened to upend the football season and moved one student to go on a hunger strike. AP

The power of sports is not confined to inside the boundaries of stadiums and arenas, and this is a good thing. It was a good thing again Monday, when pressure applied by the University of Missouri football team forced the resignation of a college president over criticism he had turned a blind eye to a campus culture of racism and discrimination.

The Missouri Tigers have a 4-5 record as Southeastern Conference also-rans. They might not even make it to a bowl game this year. But what just happened makes their season a success. It was a victory of conscience that matters well beyond the scope a scoreboard or standings can convey.

Protests of Tim Wolfe’s university presidency began to simmer in September but catapulted to national news only when at least 30 black Missouri football players said on Saturday they would boycott remaining games unless Wolfe resigned or was removed. Coach Gary Pinkel stood in solidarity with his team, Tweeting, “We are behind our players.”

Wolfe in resigning said he took “full responsibility for this frustration” and also for “the inaction that has occurred.” But there also was an undertone of defiance over the way he was forced out, such as him saying, “This is not the way changes come about.”

But it is, of course. It is!

Sometimes, this is exactly the way changes come about.

Protests, grassroots movements, civil disobedience and occasional violent uprisings are interwoven in U.S. history and have helped shape it for, well, forever. From the Boston Tea Party over taxation to Kent State over Vietnam to Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, protesting what you believe is wrong has stamped the American conscience all across our time line as a nation.

There were echoes of Ferguson, located a two-hour drive from the University of Missouri campus, in this latest protest, with both rooted in race.

The death of the unarmed Brown by a white police officer last year spawned the “Black Lives Matter” movement and made further headlines when LeBron James and other sports stars wore T-shirts in support of the protest.

That in turn was mindful of Heat players the year being photographed wearing hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black youth who had been the victim in a shooting.

Sports celebrities such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods often are criticized for not speaking out about anything controversial or political for fear of alienating sponsors or some fans.

Athletes are people first, though, and if their conscience drives them to speak out, that is their right. I won’t say it is their obligation, although that’s arguable, too.

At Missouri, there had been sit-ins organized by Concerned Student 1950 (named for the year the school admitted its first black students), a group that charged Wolfe with enabling “a culture of racism.” There had been classes canceled by sympathetic faculty supporters, even a hunger striker and a call for change by the governor. But it took a threatened boycott of games by a major-conference team to gain the national attention that applied the pressure that forced Wolfe’s resignation.

As famous Missouri alum Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, said, “Things change when sports gets involved.”

If the people who care the most about the University of Missouri and are on campus believe a change in presidents will be a step forward, that should be good enough for those of us watching from afar.

This isn’t just about Missouri, though. These things never are. There are no isolated incidents.

We need to keep a light fixed on race relations in America and keep talking about them until we get them a little bit closer to right than they are today.

The Missouri Tigers football team helped do that.

The victory is theirs, and ours.

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