At long last, the sleeping giant which lay dormant on white college campuses has been awakened. The raw power which was demonstrated on the national stage by the University of Missouri football team and the organized efforts of black student organizations recently caught an entire nation by surprise. If a strike or boycott by black football players can force a domino effect of resignations by the University President and the Chancellor of the University of Missouri System campuses … is the status quo of systemic racism at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) in America safe anywhere? This certainly must be a question raised and pondered in the minds of many, in light of the chain of events leading to the dramatic fall of the Universities of Missouri’s top officials. In retrospect, the accomplishment of the united front of black students, faculty and athletes to bring about historic change is nothing short of amazing. This non-violent black solidarity movement which was unprecedented in both impact and effect, I think represents the new evolution of black activism through the flexing of economic muscle.
The reverberations of this take down will rumble across white colleges and universities for years to come. All of a sudden, in the twinkling of an eye, the black students, athletes and faculty stopped begging for change and forced it through the only method that power and institutional racism will yield to … the power of the dollar bill. The economic power wielded by the University of Missouri black football players and that which is held by black students at PWIs in America is daunting and unstoppable, if only it will be put to use.
The University of Missouri, like most major college football programs, relies on a vast majority of black athletes to fuel their multi-million dollar programs run by multi-millionaire coaches, the vast majority of whom are white. According to a 2010 report of the NCAA, 45.8% of Division I football players were black. ("Blacks Now a Majority On Football Teams." ESPN.com. 2010 December 9. Web.) At the University of Missouri, out of 84 full scholarships awarded to the football team, 58 go to black athletes. (Belkin, Douglas and Melissa Korn. “Student Protests Trigger Resignations at Missouri.” The Wall Street Journal. 10 November 2015. Web.) Between 2007 and 2010, black men were 2.8% of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students, but 57.1% of football teams and 64.3% of basketball teams. This statistic is all the more telling and ironic considering that traditional powerhouse and 15-time national champion University of Alabama did not have any black players until 1971, but now fields a team that is exclusively dominated by black players.
This overwhelming majority of African American players who fill the rosters of NCAA football (and basketball) programs, represents an untapped source of leverage and power to effectuate social justice and racial equality, heretofore unrealized. In stark contrast to the majority of white student athletes however, these same black players oftentimes struggle financially to afford the basic necessities and creature comforts that most white students take for granted. On top of this inequity, black athletes and students are often marginalized, ostracized, and forced to exist in racist environments that segregate and exclude them at every turn. Add to this the indignities of racial slurs and threats of bodily harm that are routine at white colleges, and you begin to see the picture of an existence that is not far removed from the experiences of the first black students to cross the color line back in the 1960s.
The power exhibited by black students and athletes at the University of Missouri however is a potential game changer. The genie is now out of the bottle, never to be placed back into the cozy confines of the status quo. Make no mistake, the decision by University President Timothy Wolfe to resign was not a moral one. Wolfe’s decision to resign had little to do with as he put it, “something needed to be done that was immediate and substantial for us to heal,” and more about the loss of revenue from the football program beginning with a million dollar fine if Missouri had failed to play its next scheduled game against Brigham Young University (BYU).
The dissatisfaction with University leadership had been brewing for months. A series of racist incidents that had been brought to Wolfe’s attention were essentially ignored or glossed over in the minds of black student organization leaders and black faculty. Missouri Students Association black president Payton Head sparked the debate of racial intolerance in September 2015 when he posted on Facebook an incident in which he was the target of racial epithets. According to Head, these types of incidents at the University “were not uncommon.”
As reported by The New York Times, another incident in October 2015 where a white man interrupted a homecoming event by the Legion of Black Collegians and used racial slurs against the participants, was dismissed by Wolfe after black students brought it to his attention. After a swastika scrawled in feces was found on campus later that month, the activist group, Concerned Student 1950 was formed—signifying the year the first black student was admitted to the University. The organization then began to pick up momentum as they demanded that Wolfe address the issues of rampant racism on campus. (Eligon, John and Richard Pérez-Peña. “University of Missouri Protests Spur a Day of Change.” The New York Times. 2015 November 9. Web.) In hindsight, Wolfe ignored the students’ demands at his own peril.
After essentially ignoring the black students’ demands for months and refusing to budge on calls for his resignation, the swiftness of Wolfe’s departure after the football team threatened boycott was startling. According to sports columnist Joe Nocera, “the African American football players of the University of Missouri tweeted that they were going on strike until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed.” (Nocera, Joe. “College Athletes’ Potential Realized in Missouri Resignations.” The New York Times. 2015 November 10. Print.) In approximately 36 hours after the threat of economic sanctions by the football team, not only had Wolfe resigned, but University of Missouri System Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin also agreed to resign effective at the end of the year. Clearly it was the football players’ threat which potentially could have cost the school millions of dollars that was the catalyst for the change of strategy by the University and the System’s Board of Curators.
Imagine if similar strategies were adopted by united black athletes at predominately white schools across the country to combat racism and effectuate structural policy change. If so, perhaps a new era of dialogue about inclusiveness and tolerance might sweep across white colleges and universities ushered in by this new black militancy. On the other hand, maybe the continuing struggle for equality at PWIs might facilitate a reverse exodus of our elite black athletes back to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), (see "Back to Black") thereby raising their profiles and economic status commensurate with the millions of dollars and publicity they generate for white institutions.
To call this demonstration of black power by the University of Missouri students a watershed moment in the history of sports and higher education in this country does not overstate its impact. I believe that history will judge this moment to be revolutionary in the centuries’ old continuing struggle against institutional racism and the scourge of white supremacy.
Gerald Torrence is a lawyer, educator, writer, social and political activist, and motivational speaker living in Atlanta. You can find more insightful opinions from TheTruthTeller at the-truth-teller.com. You can follow Gerald on Twitter @tttspokentruth.