Equity & Diversity

What Might Missouri Football Strike Mean for College Athletes Moving Forward?

By Bryan Toporek — November 16, 2015 3 min read
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On Nov. 9, University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigned, citing “serious concerns about the MU campus and its leadership.” His resignation came no more than 48 hours after dozens of African-American members of the Missouri football team announced their intention to stop participating in any football-related activities until Wolfe resigned or was removed from his post:

One day before Wolfe ultimately resigned, head football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted the following image, indicating the entire football program would back the movement:

The football players were part of a student movement protesting Wolfe’s leadership after a series of on-campus racial incidents over recent months received an insufficient response in their eyes. For nearly a full week prior to the football players announcing their de facto strike, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler was on a hunger strike in protest of Wolfe’s continued employment, writing in a Facebook post that he would not “consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”

Through the first five days of Butler’s hunger strike, Wolfe remained steadfast that he would not be stepping down. Within 48 hours of the football team ceasing all football-related activities, Wolfe was gone.

Sonny Vaccaro, a former Nike and Adidas executive and long-time advocate for student-athlete rights—he was a consultant for the Ed O’Bannon case against the NCAA over student-athletes’ likeness rights—believes what happened in Missouri may be just the tip of the iceberg for collegiate athletes.

“This is what I’ve believed could happen for 30 years and what I think is the deepest fear for the NCAA—athletes control what happens on campus,” Vaccaro told Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel. “This is an unbelievable step forward for athletes.”

Former Missouri football player Michael Sam, a trendsetter in his own right, likewise thought the team’s stance—and Wolfe’s subsequent resignation—spoke volumes about the power high-profile collegiate athletes have off the field. As he told Bleacher Report’s Greg Couch:

People on this campus, especially African-Americans, believe they've been ignored and do not have a voice. And President Wolfe would just pretty much wave it off—until the football team said something. That's when the wheels got turned. Wolfe said one person couldn't make a difference, but boom. It always starts with sports. Not just the football team, but sports in general. Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe. Nothing came to be without the football team's help. Black or white, gay or straight, we are a family. And family sticks together.

As ProFootballTalk’s Michael David Smith tweeted, Missouri’s leadership overhaul could set a dangerous precedent:

However, before projecting a nationwide football player-led insurrection against collegiate presidents, the unique circumstances of Missouri’s change must be considered. The #ConcernedStudent1950 movement had been in full force for weeks before the football players became involved. They also weren’t protesting something trivial; repeated racially tinged incidents deserved condemnation and the attention they eventually received. Barring a spread of such incidents across college campuses across the U.S.—and collegiate leaders who ignore said problems—what happened in Missouri may ultimately prove to be more of an outlier than a sign of things to come.

As CNN’s Rachel Nichols tweeted, however, other collegiate athletes can learn from the Missouri football team’s actions:

What comes of the Missouri football team’s stance remains to be seen. Given the booming economics behind high-profile college sports, though, such athletes have seldom wielded more off-field power.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.