Guest Editorial: The power of a football strike
That’s amazing, what just happened at the University of Missouri.
Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system, resigned Monday. From a distance, he looks like a leader who had lost his last follower. He had ignored warnings and pleadings on the flagship campus in Columbia, Mo., that the university needed to deal forcefully with a series of racist incidents.
Even as demonstrators confronted him at the homecoming parade, and as one student went on a hunger strike, Wolfe did his best to avoid the crisis. But he appeared to be surviving — until the weekend, when at least 30 African-American football players vowed not to play football until Wolfe resigned.
Yes, they called a football strike. And they were backed by their teammates and their coach. (“The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players,” coach Gary Pinkel wrote on Twitter.)
The Missouri Tigers’ game Saturday against Brigham Young was in jeopardy. Missouri would lose some money tied to the game, but worse, it would stand — that is, its administration would stand — as a symbol of disinterest in festering issues of race.
And that was it for the president. His resignation was followed later in the day by the resignation of the chancellor.
There were plenty of other pressure points: student leaders wanted Wolfe gone; some angry faculty members planned to cancel classes and hold teach-ins; a special meeting of the university system’s governing body was set for Monday. But when the football team spoke, that was a fearsome and unavoidable voice of dissent.
Racism has been a historic problem at Missouri, as it has been in the rest of the country. The main protest group on campus calls itself Concerned Student 1950 — marking the year the university admitted its first black student. There have been several reported incidents this year of black students being taunted with racial epithets. A swastika drawn in feces was found on campus.
In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., about 100 miles away, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, university administrators had a chance to lead a conversation about race at Mizzou, a prominent educational institution.
Wolfe apologized last week for ignoring black student leaders who had confronted him at the homecoming parade. “Racism does exist at our university, and it is unacceptable,” he said after meeting with Jonathan Butler, the graduate student on a hunger strike. “It is a longstanding, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students, faculty and staff.”
It was too late. So a feckless leader has been pressured to resign.
What happens now? Missouri has a leadership void. Does the university have someone who can deal with the concerns surrounding race, fulfill all the other demands on the president of a major university … and keep the confidence of the football team?
Yes, an amazing thing happened at Missouri.
The Tigers will take the field as scheduled Saturday against BYU at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Missouri is the underdog.