Why Mizzou's Act of Defiance is the Most Important Sports Protest in Decades

College students turning anger into action is nothing new. But getting results from those actions? Revolutionary.

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Complex Original

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Barely 38 hours. 

That’s the only shot clock a football team needed to oust the two most powerful men at the University of Missouri, rattle higher education, reinvigorate the spirit of social activism, and scare the living hell out of the NCAA.

In a stunning show of power the Mizzou Tigers simultaneously struck fear in the mighty and emboldened the meek; they also executed a feat of activism that hundreds of students, dozens of teachers, and a dying man could not. 

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe officially resigned on Monday, November 9 around 10 a.m. CST. 

The reality, however, is that his job was most likely gone 38 hours prior when starting cornerback and Missouri native, Anthony Sherrill, tweeted this: 

We're black. Black is powerful. Our struggle may look different, but we are all #ConcernedStudent1950 pic.twitter.com/obCjSWCFVY

— HeMadeAKing (@1Sherrils_2MIZZ) November 8, 2015

And certainly gone when about 15 hours later Mizzou head football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted this. 

The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players. #ConcernedStudent1950 GP pic.twitter.com/fMHbPPTTKl

— Coach Gary Pinkel (@GaryPinkel) November 8, 2015

In a move never before seen in collegiate sports, Mizzou’s black football players (60 of the 124 on the roster) were able to command a type of executive power, forcing those in power to succumb to their demands completely. The moment they decided they would no longer take the field, there was nothing any faculty member, administrator, coach, booster, politician, sports pundit, or executive could do but grant them exactly what (or in this case, who) they wanted. 

We can talk all we want, but money will always speak louder.

The list of racially and sexually fueled grievances happening in recent months on Missouri’s campus were becoming so frequent they bordered meandering. In September, the student body president—a black man—reported being called a racial and homophobic slur while walking campus. In October, members of the Legion of Black Collegians (LBC) were called the N word by a fellow student, also on campus. That same month, a swastika was drawn in human feces on a dorm bathroom wall. It was these events, compounded with other daily micro-aggressions and a lack of fervent response from Wolfe that compelled graduate student Jonathan Butler to initiate a hunger strike on Monday, Nov. 2 until Wolfe resigned.

Five days into the strike, Wolfe refused to budge and continued to infuriate. 

Butler was willing to die, yet apparently Wolfe thought a nice letter might make him reconsider—and help him keep his job. It was too little too late. The university president wielded a pen while Butler and the Mizzou football team held a sledgehammer.

This is jarring to even write considering the veil of helplessness the NCAA has hovered over it’s constituents. The association has grown into a billion dollar industry mostly due to the value created by its student-athletes. Money, generated by ticket, merchandising, and ad sales facilitated by student athletes goes to everyone (the school, coaching staffs, event staffs, etc.) but the players themselves. In addition to this lack of compensation, student-athletes receive no additional healthcare benefits or living stipends (outside of their scholarships) and are forbidden from accepting gifts, donations, or contributions from anyone.

"This highlights for players across the nation how much power they have to affect change," Christopher Huma told Ben Frederickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Huma runs the National Collegiate Players Association and spearheaded last year’s failed attempt at unionization by Northwestern University’s football team.

Indeed this power stroke by Mizzou sets a riveting precedent and begs the question: “What’s next?” 

This act by Mizzou actualized a terrifying truth of the tremendous power college athletes possess.

The price tag for missing Saturday’s game against BYU alone would have cost the University of Missouri $1 million. With at least two games after that, the writing was on the wall. Regardless how much Wolfe may have wanted to stay or others may have wanted him to stay, there was no way the university could afford to keep him.

We can talk all we want, but money will always speak louder. Pissed off students are tolerable (and cheap). Athletes, though? No way. This act by Mizzou actualized a terrifying truth of the tremendous power college athletes possess. Jonathan Butler had to risk his organs shutting down in lieu of firing Wolfe. The football team barely had to tweet.

But this is why we love sports. They answer to no one, and at their core exemplify humanity’s most valuable assets: courage, honesty, integrity, respect.

Mizzou students gather at Tiger Plaza to celebrate MU system president Tim Wolfe's resignation #ConcernedStudent1950 pic.twitter.com/dvhwmgW75Z

— Morgan Schlueter (@morganschlueter) November 9, 2015

Imagine the pressure that can be created now if, say, the Alabama football team refuses to play unless meaningful negotiations are enacted to take steps toward compensatory healthcare for student-athletes? Or if the KU basketball players refuse to enter Allen Fieldhouse until they were properly compensated for jerseys sold in their likeness? The route is no longer time-consuming lawsuits or politicking—it is outright refusal. 

This isn’t the first time athletes have used their platforms to make larger political statements. Just last year St. Louis Rams players entered an NFL game with their arms raised to show solidarity with those protesting the killing of Mike Brown. Months before that the Los Angeles Clippers turned their warmup jerseys inside out to protest racist comments made by their owner Donald Sterling. In 2012, the Miami Heat donned raised hoodies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. In 2010, the Phoenix Suns wore “Los Suns” jerseys to protest anti-immigration law and show appreciation to their Latino fan base. These acts meant well but were ultimately innocuous. They brought no change and set no precedents. 

This is why history will not file the Tigers away with CP and LeBron, but with Tommie and John Carlos and Muhammad Ali. The act was the boldest we had seen from sportsmen in a generation, one that might change college sports forever. 

Consider this excerpt from Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger:


That sound you hear is colleges and universities around the country trembling.

Whether they meant to or not, this Mizzou team will be remembered throughout history for doing what scores of athletes both collegiate and professional have been afraid to—fearlessly unite themselves against the bureaucracy in order to further a worthwhile cause. 

It was the most important—and powerful—act of protest in sport since Ali refused to go to Vietnam. And it barely took a practice.

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