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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Nov 10, 2015, 11:56 am

After Missouri Students Force President’s Resignation, Will More College Football Players Organize?

BY Alex Lubben

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University of Missouri football players, shortly after committing to their strike.  

Tim Wolfe, the University of Missouri System president, has resigned amidst controversies on campus, primarily relating to visible racist incidents that students say the campus administration failed to meaningfully address. R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the flagship campus in Columbia, announced that he would resign at the end of this year.

In a resignation announcement yesterday morning, Wolfe lamented the terms of his resignation: “This is not—I repeat, not—the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening, and quit intimidating each other through either our role or whatever means we decide to use.”

But Tim Wolfe never changed anything. This is exactly how social change comes about, and student and faculty activists across the country can use what’s happened at Mizzou as a blueprint.

Wolfe’s resignation is the culmination of an extremely effective activist campaign demanding an end to racism on campus, culminating with the threat of a football players’ strike. They refused to play until Wolfe resigned. Had they not played against BYU this weekend, they would have cost the University $1,000,000. Wolfe made less than $500,000.

Over the course of the last several months, tensions around racial issues have escalated on campus. In September, Payton Head, the president of the Missouri Students Association, who is black, described an incident on Facebook in which he said white students repeatedly called him the N-word as he walked through campus. In October, students of the Legion of Black Collegians were harassed by a man on campus during a rehearsal for a theatre performance. On October 24, a swastika drawn with human feces was discovered in an MU dorm bathroom.

These incidents, protesters say, aren’t singular but demonstrative; they’re representative of the campus’s culture, not exceptional. And while students and faculty have been citing these events as the reasons they’re protesting, many students say racism has been a fact of life in Columbia and at Mizzou long before this fall. Cynthia Frisby, a black professor in the school’s journalism program, posted to Facebook that during her 18 years in Columbia, she has “been called the n word too many times to count.”  

As the string of incidents compounded, the response from students and faculty escalated. A campus group, Concerned Student 1950 (named for the year that the university began admitting black students), demanded Wolfe’s removal from office in late October. Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at UM, began a hunger strike on the morning of November 2, vowing not to eat until Wolfe resigned. Among his reasons for the hunger strike, he says, were the overt racist incidents on campus, and the university’s removing of Colleen McNicholas’s hospital privileges. She had been performing abortions at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia. Missouri state law dictates that doctors can only perform abortions if they have clinical privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the abortions are taking place. Her removal constituted a de facto ban on abortions in Columbia.

Speaking to the Columbia Missourian, Butler spoke further as to why he initiated a hunger strike:

A hunger strike specifically speaks to the nature of the beast that we're dealing with when we talk about systemic issues, because it deals with humanity. I think what I want people to come away with, if nothing else, (is) to understand that I'm so committed to making things better here at the university ... that I'm literally willing to give up my humanity to see some injustices stop.

The day Butler began his strike, students camped on the university’s Carnahan Quadrangle in support. Concerned Student 1950 called for a boycott on all academic services until Wolfe resigned.

The university’s response didn’t satisfy. Loftin announced an online diversity training program that drew skepticism from faculty and students. Students confronted Wolfe in Kansas City, asking him what he thought “systematic oppression” is. Wolfe responded, “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have equal opportunity for success.”

On Sunday, the same day that MU football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photo announcing the full team’s solidarity with his black players’ decision not to play until Butler ended his hunger strike, Wolfe released a statement indicating that he was “dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues”.

He resigned the following morning.

Football players at major academic institutions have been showing increasing signs of activist militancy. From Northwestern’s union campaign to Grambling State’s strike in 2013 in protest of their unsafe working conditions, there’s a growing awareness of the power that college football players wield. And they’re realizing that their power isn’t limited to fights over college athletes’ rights.

At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ben Frederickson writes, ”[Football players] are no longer nameless figures in video games from which they don't profit. They don't have to stick to sports. They have more ways than ever before to spread their message. And they are becoming increasingly aware of their power, especially when it comes to issues of race.”

Football is deeply engrained in the social and economic fabric of the university. When players decide to take action, the administration notices. The dynamics of this action, which can’t be understood as anything less than a strike, shows the players for what they are: workers, whose labor drives the economy of the university. And as workers, they control the means of (academic/cultural) production, whether or not they glean any profit from it.

And though the football team’s decision to strike seems to have forced Wolfe’s resignation, their decision not to play was the result of activism across campus, from both students and faculty. The football team wouldn’t play until Butler started eating. Butler wouldn’t eat until Wolfe was out. No one was acting alone.

Alex Lubben is the former Deputy Publisher at In These Times and is currently a freelance journalist in New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @alexlubben.

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