The Missouri Tiger football program is going to function rather differently than any other program for at least a little bit. What has now been widely reported, covered, and discussed is this: Black Missouri football players are going to boycott team activities as they call for school president Tim Wolfe to be fired or leave on his own.
Unrest has been growing at the campus for some time. Numerous things can be cited in order to explain why a group of athletes, students, and faculty are calling for a form of justice. Whether or not you feel that Wolfe is the root of the problem is just a small piece of a larger puzzle. Wolf might merely be part of a larger issue at hand, or this might be a misguided effort on behalf of otherwise well-meaning protesters. Different people will fall into these different camps, but those aren’t even the most interesting parts of this story.
Here’s what begins to make this the biggest college football story of the year, even as its layers are only now starting to be unpeeled after unrest within the university has been developing for some time.
The first thing which will immediately grab the headlines, at least for sports fans, is the fact that football players are willingly stepping away from the field. Many different people will have many different opinions on the matter.
Some will revert to being upset that athletes are taking up this cause which will alter their Saturday viewing pleasures. Many, but not all, of these people tend to lack empathy for the free-laborers who provide us our entertainment by literally destroying their bodies and minds in a violent sport.
Justification will take the form of saying they would play for free, that the cause is misguided, the focus of the cause is wrong, that it is easy to boycott when the program is doing poorly, and so on. All of this misses the larger point that some Missouri players feel an injustice persists at their university.
That is merely how many of the college football diehards might react.
This story will transcend the sport itself. It is safe to assume that major national news outlets will all cover this story — as it is less a sports story and more a topic of racial tension, student-athlete rights, and the common perception of older white male authority figures operating within a vacuum of no recourse.
Much of that coverage will be poorly done, because the issues which gave rise to this situation will seem new to the mainstream press.
Also, unfortunately, it will become an agenda-filled race to say why one group is right or wrong. Facts will be ignored, prejudices will reside, and as is the case with nearly every hot topic which makes its way through larger news outlets, oversimplification and overcompensation will likely occur. Much of the history at the school — the details which help paint the picture of the unrest in Columbia — will either be ignored in order to make a complex issue black and white, or become part of an attempt at creating a forced balance marked by overcompensation for competing belief systems, which may shift the focus of coverage from the actual issues at hand.
Other athletic departments across the nation will closely watch Missouri as well. Football is king for many universities; the sport’s funds help drive payroll, development projects, and so much more. Leaders, administrators, athletic department heads might all “root” for Missouri to not cave — a perceived capitulation could set a precedent for other groups of players to follow.
The NCAA could even attempt to step in. How it might is anyone’s guess, but the organization’s primary focus has long been to keep those without power from claiming any of it, all while protecting the powerful. It’s an archaic system, yet one that is fully backed by universities to protect the influx of money into coffers. Its merits here, however, are not all that important.
The aftermath is, though.
A world in which normally powerless student-athletes can have a voice that’s not only heard but responded to? It goes against nearly every single thing the NCAA believes in. It’s what school presidents fear. The NCAA will find any way to justify keeping money out of players’ pockets, but if student-athletes gain power from this situation at Missouri, it could be a doomsday scenario for the ideals of the NCAA.
A part of me wonders — even in the event the protesters get what they want — if the story will be quickly brushed away, as though it is over. Regardless of how much responsibility you assign to Wolfe as the face of the University of Missouri system, no one man can truly be held accountable for an entire university’s struggles and shortcomings. Would we, as consumers of the sport and members of our species, truly believe it is all “fixed” — or, on the other hand, would we realize that one man’s firing is an isolated event within a larger structure that can only be fixed through long-term focus, effort, and advocacy?
College football’s biggest story of the season is not developing on the field. Hopefully it will be treated with the same respect and dignity the sport’s ambassadors bring to the games every Saturday.
Other than that, as the story unfolds before us, simply note that those who have taken action — at the center of the drama in Columbia — have taken risks. The protesting black football players will get the most attention, scrutiny, and credit, but let that not distract you from what the issue actually is, regardless of your own opinions.
A story of this magnitude, with the impact it will have on many lives which are not ours, is not inherently a football story. It has a chance to change the way one university operates (maybe more), and help right a number of wrongs that players feel have persisted far too long. This story has very little to do with the people who enjoy sports.
It concerns college athletes — a group of people for whom it’s never easy to protest, especially in a perfectly-calibrated way that satisfies everyone. It concerns a football team, but it relates to a struggle far removed from the gridiron itself. It might jeopardize a BYU-Missouri football game this Saturday in an NFL stadium, Arrowhead Stadium, but it goes to the heart of something very different from play calls and game management and tackling technique.
By all means, have your opinion on what is and isn’t appropriate. Study the situation and arrive at a sincere view. In the process, though, allow these players to learn and grow from their experience. Expecting perfection — absolute mastery of what they should say and how they should say it — isn’t reasonable. (Remember when you were 19 or 20?) Not allowing them to make their voices heard deprives them of an inherent dignity which is magnified when society respects it.
Similarly, Tim Wolfe and the people within the University of Missouri system also deserve to be treated with dignity as well. Believe it or not, two sides of a very contentious issue can be accorded respect, even while onlookers might disagree strongly with one of them.
This isn’t a football game, a competition in which points are scored. This is about young people working to create a world in which they feel comfortable at the university they chose to attend — to gain an education about a complex and difficult 21st-century society.
The protesting Missouri players are wading deeper into the waters of education, learning how the real world works. You don’t have to arrive at a place of forced agreement with them, but they do deserve your respect for being willing to speak about something they believe in.