Activist Athletes on Campus Football and Basketball Players Have Always Had More Power Than They've Used

By Hill, Robert | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), November 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

Activist Athletes on Campus Football and Basketball Players Have Always Had More Power Than They've Used


Hill, Robert, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In the reports and commentary concerning the recent senior- leadership departures at the University of Missouri, some pundits on ESPN and MSNBC have speculated on the possibility that the threatened strike by the school's varsity football team that forced the toppling might spread to other campuses nationwide.

Widespread campus protests and disruptions are memories of a bygone era. Student-athletes in revenue-producing sports - football and men's basketball - generally were nonparticipants. As NFL and NBA salaries and the integration of black athletes into these leagues increased, talented black players at elite Division I universities focused on moving into professional careers and the ranks of the rich and famous gladiators.

A generation later, the Tigers of Mizzou football players likely dream similar dreams. But, in the last week, this team of mostly African-American young men tested a theory this writer has held for more than a decade: If black students, faculty and staff want rapid, positive change in campus racial climates, they need to enlist the help of the basketball and football players.

The Tigers, with the support of their coaching staff, merely threatened to not play. Although the impact of a Tigers football shutdown would have been enormous, in the cost-benefit calculus the good derived from standing up for racial justice was great and the risk of their bluff being called was low.

Football is king in America. Thus, within a few of days of football players threatening to boycott unless Missouri university system President Tim Wolfe resigned, he and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin did, and black interim president, Michael Middleton, has been named.

In 1970 at Syracuse University in New York - a different time and place - things did not go so smoothly or predictably. In career- ending moves, nine black football players, erroneously dubbed the Syracuse 8, refused to report for spring practice. They boycotted the Orangemen team, protesting what they believed to be unfair treatment of black team members at the hands of their own head coach, Ben Schwartzwalder. The young men, supported by legendary 1957 alumnus Jim Brown, wanted an integrated coaching staff, better medical care, race-neutral competition for starting positions and as much academic support as the white team members received.

The complicated series of events and realities that unfolded in Syracuse in 1970 stand in sharp contrast to the Missouri outcome of 2015. …

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