Can Collegiate Athletes Affect Change Without Repercussions?

Can Collegiate Athletes Affect Change Without Repercussions?

[Opinion] The football players at the University of Missouri made a difference, but will that come at a cost?

by Thabiti Lewis, November 16, 2015

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Can Collegiate Athletes Affect Change Without Repercussions?

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University of Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s announcement that he will retire at the end of this season because of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma helped me better understand his support of the players and ignited my greatest fear: There will be repercussions for the Missouri 32.  While grassroots organizing and the infection of Black Lives Matter certainly played a significant role in getting president Tim Wolfe to resign, the threat of 32 Black football players forced its immediate manifestation—the courageous young athletes of Mizzou's football team are all worthy of an ESPY Award for Courage.  In the history of collegiate sport, athletes have never acted so swiftly—it was powerful.  But what is power?

As I argue in Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America, collegiate sport is big business and players have enormous untapped power that can force change. And, as sports historian David Zirin has wonderfully pointed out, there is a history dating back to the 1960s of players striking and threatening to strike in the name of diversity demands.  But there is also a history of those in power changing the rules, offering token progress, and exacting revenge against those that dare rise up.  All of these things scare me as I ponder what is happening and will happen next at the University of Missouri, especially the latter once coach Pinkel retires. Soon the real games will begin.



History has also shown us powerful universities as well as coaches and even the NCAA will not go down without a fight. When the NCAA lost the Ed O’Bannon (paying players for use of their image) case they went back to court and got a reversal; while Black players (who comprise 70% in conferences like the SEC) have historically protested for more Black coaches, there remains few Black head coaches or offensive and defensive coordinators.  Sure there are many position coaches but these positions rarely lead to the head coach's job. Interim president Michael Middleton, Wolfe’s replacement, might be all the diversity the Missouri students can expect.

I raise this concern because many people are not pleased nor feel that justice has been served.  There were already two death threats. The blogosphere, where anonymous truth reigns, reveals comments like: “Black people are trying to control the administration. This has to stop if America is to have hope of remaining intact.”  Or, “[don’t] allow these people to shout racism against blacks”.  

The truth about those with power, without fear of sounding cliché is: “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” because they are relentless in keeping things from changing.   

Those with power know how to give the feel of change when the essential structures remain the same. 

Power acts as a type of relation between people, a complex form of strategy, with the ability to secretly shape another's behavior.  While on the student level we see that white people willing to do the heavy lifting necessary to create change, not enough of the whites in positions of power have displayed a commitment to altering white cultural imperative in favor of a diverse cultural imperative. Philosopher Michel Foucault explains that power is a producer of reality, impacting entire networks, practices, the world around us, and how our behavior can be affected: "it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth."

Although Wolfe is gone, the networks of power have not been restructured. While I do not doubt that Middleton, a founding member of the Legion of Black Collegians that delivered a list of demands in 1969, will push to get “truth on the table,” his interim status suggests that long-term behavior in the networks and practices will likely not change at University of Missouri.  For example, the governing board that watched Wolfe ignore students and faculty has not changed. This same board, which will likely lead the search for a new president remains roughly 90% white and 80% male. 

Here are the moments of truth that will signal true change.  Middleton immediately delivers on the list of demands; racially diverse top administrators are hired; the football team hires Black offensive and/or defensive coordinators, and athletic directors for the football team; in 2017 when Governor Jeremiah Nixon makes a verbal commitment that in 2017 when he is tasked to select three replacements he makes racially diverse choices. 

Shaun Harper of University of Penn Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education says that the average percentage of Black men on university campuses is less than 3% but the same aggregate comprise 57% of football and 64% of basketball.  African American men are overrepresented on university basketball and football teams, but underrepresented as students, presidents, deans, vice presidents, tenured professors, full professors, and trustees.

Thus, Pinkel’s imminent departure leaves me very concerned for the future of the thirty-two young Black men that dared buck the system.  How long before an academic scandal is reported? How long before reports of criminal behavior among football players surfaces? Will the current athletic director make certain that the new coach protects the scholarships that are annually renewable at the discretion of the head coach?

I promise you it ain’t over. The Missouri football boycott is good but it is more an illusion of power. Ironically the uniform theme for Saturday’s game is: “Whiteout” and the uniform theme for the final game is “Blackout.”  Soon Pinkel’s declaration that: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players” will be tested because there will be repercussions, as nchormany of the Black Missouri 32 may be asked to get out.   

Change cannot emerge from merely standing together; this is not a lasting power play but merely a miracle victory.  Understanding what power is and how power works is key.  As long as people in positions to evoke change do not change then power is safe.   

Thabiti Lewis is an associate professor of English at Washington State University, Vancouver and author of "Baller of the New School: Race and Sports in America." 





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