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Mizzou football players’ power will scare university administrators across the US

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The strike by the Tigers’ black players helped lead to the resignation of the school’s president. And it may not turn out to be a one off

Last week, Jonathan Butler, a black University of Missouri graduate student, started a hunger strike in an effort to bring attention to what he felt was the lackadaisical manner in which university administrators, in particular university president Tim Wolfe, had addressed growing concerns about racial hostility at the school. The hunger strike itself was little more than a curiosity at first, marked only by a couple of pitched tents in the middle of campus. Few noticed, and even fewer cared.

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Then, on Saturday night, the football team got involved .

It started with 30 black players saying that they would not participate in any football-related activities until Wolfe had resigned. On Sunday, head coach Gary Pinkel, who earns more money annually than any other public employee in the state, announced his support for the players’ decision, and in a show of solidarity, the entire team, black and white, joined the boycott. Now the game this coming Saturday against Brigham Young in Kansas City was in jeopardy, as well as the estimated $1m the school would have to pay to BYU in the event of a cancellation, not to mention the revenue that football Saturdays bring to the school and to businesses surrounding the stadiums.

Related: Mizzou’s black players should be proud: they have put values over football

It is impossible to overstate the impact that the football team’s decision to strike had on the chaos that ensued in Columbia this weekend. On Saturday morning, few outside of the campus community knew of the growing unrest at the university. By Saturday night, after members of the team locked arms, took a picture and announced their decision to boycott all football activities, it became a gigantic story. The national media descended upon the university. On Monday, Wolfe was gone . The chronology of these events is critical, and the speed of the response by Wolfe and the university is astonishing. Just 48 hours after the football team made its pronouncement, the state’s most powerful man in academia had resigned, the hunger strike had ended, and the football team’s gambit had succeeded where months of protests had failed with nary a practice missed.

So the question now: Is this a watershed moment in the history of college athletics or is this merely a blip on the radar? Will other athletes at other colleges use their fame in order to enact social change, or does this end with the swift resignation of a relatively unknown university president?

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Some will say, and in fact some have said, that this act of civic-mindedness would never had occurred had the Tigers not been mired in their worst season in years (Thursday night’s loss to Mississippi State dropped Missouri to 4-5 overall this season after going a combined 23-5 in the previous two campaigns.) And a visit to Missouri fan message boards will confirm that many believe athletes on scholarships have become involved in an issue they say has become overblown. Yet it speaks to the power these players have and to the economic driver that big time college athletics, particular football and men’s basketball, have become to these universities that merely the threat of an empty Arrowhead Stadium (capacity 79,451) on Saturday could lead to such a quick about face on an issue that had been plaguing the campus for years.

Collisions between race, money and college athletics are not new, but they have seemed to become more frequent in recent years. Just last winter, members of the Georgetown basketball team were both applauded and derided for donning “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warm-ups after the death of Eric Garner .

Related: University of Missouri president resigns amid protests over racial intolerance

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A year prior, football players at Northwestern University had sought and had received preliminary approval to unionize after a regional National Labor Relations Board director ruled that they were employees of the university, a decision that was later made moot when the national NLRB dismissed the players’ petition.

What has happened here in Missouri is unprecedented, but the fact remains that the conditions brought about Wolfe’s exit would be very hard to replicate elsewhere. Coaches at major programs are notorious for being single-mindedly focused on their sport and are risk averse by nature, which leads them to eschew getting involved in campus politics. Players, on the other hand, have been known to segregate themselves from the rank and file of the student body. The highly combustible topic of race seems to have roiled the Tigers into action, but it seems hard to see players wielding this power to address more mundane topics like faculty hiring or diversity in admissions. But the power displayed by these athletes in this situation is undeniable and it has to have scared the wits out of university administrators across the country.

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Only time will determine if this is the opening salvo in a new era of college athletics where the athletes use their prominence on campus and economic value to the university to give voice to the perceived inequities of campus life. Or if it will merely be remembered as a president sacrificing himself for the NCAA in order to ensure that the Tigers played on Saturday and the status quo in college sports remained in place for another day, keeping the pin in the grenade.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015


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