In the days since now former University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe was toppled from office by a band of students, people have searched to find the takeaway lesson.
Some posit that the protests demonstrate the overly sensitive nature of today’s millennials while others wonder about the long-term strength of the First Amendment when those who supposedly teach it don’t protect it, as was shown with one mass communication professor.
But the real lasting moral from Wolfe’s forced resignation may be that you underestimate the power of big-time college athletes, especially those who are African-American, at your own peril. While the hunger strike of graduate student Jonathan Butler gave the protests on the Columbia campus a sense of urgency, the truth is that until a group of Missouri football players lent their names to the cause of removing Wolfe from office, the demonstrations were stuck in neutral. However, within 36 hours of those 30 or so players entering the fray by threatening to boycott football related activities, up to and including last Saturday’s home game with Brigham Young, Wolfe was gone.
Campus leadership had essentially ignored weeks of expressed anger on the part of protestors, but they could not look past the potential of losing more than $1 million in revenue generated by football. The tsunami initiated by the players grew so large that it carried along their coach, Gary Pinkel. Pinkel, who announced his retirement a few days later to deal with health issues, in theory, worked for Wolfe. Yet, he quickly moved to support the players’ insurrection against the chief executive at the university, the guy who signed his paycheck.
But Pinkel realized that while Wolfe signed his check, those players were the real bankers.
What makes the protest in Columbia even more interesting is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the protesting players were black, in disproportion to their numbers on the Missouri campus. In the fall of 2014, black students were 7 percent of the Missouri student body, while 65 percent of the football roster this year is black. Pinkel may very well have bought into the players’ protests, but he also was being prudent.
Missouri’s numbers are roughly comparable to those found in a 2013 study conducted by Penn professor Shaun Harper, showing that between 2007 and 2010, black men made up less than 3 percent of full time undergraduates at schools in the nation’s six big athletic conferences. But, they made up 57 percent of football teams and 64 percent of basketball squads. They just happen to be the major money makers in most college athletic programs.
This power shift toward black athletes stands in stark contrast to just 46 years ago when 14 black members of the Wyoming football team were kicked off the roster by then head coach Lloyd Eaton. The players asked for permission to wear black armbands during their game against Brigham Young, a school operated by the Mormon church, which, at the time, barred black men from entering the priesthood.
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Missouri had called the players’ bluff and kept Wolfe. The guess here is that other big time universities will get their chance and soon enough.