Recollections of my 1995 article on the business of college athletics danced in my head when I heard the news about the University of Missouri football team’s refusal to play until the president of that University, Tim Wolfe, resigns or is dismissed. The players said, “due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience” and his lax attitude regarding racial issues on campus, they would no longer participate in football activities. (Prior to the publishing date for this article, Tim Wolfe resigned.)
As I noted in 1995 and in several articles on college athletics and the billions of dollars they generate, money is the name of the game. When coaches of college teams earn several million dollars per year and half-billion dollar stadiums are being built, the actual laborers, the players, get lost in the shuffle.
Well, the players on the University of Missouri football team are far from being invisible as they are making a statement that has divulged an economic vulnerability. By the time you read this the situation may have been resolved, but even if it is there are lessons to be learned and actions to be replicated from this case.
According to an article on NBC Sports, if the University of Missouri had canceled the game with BYU, the Tigers would have been on the hook for $1 million. Everything boils down to dollars, if you look deeply enough, and the young men on Missouri’s team are illuminating that reality by their actions. The same thing could be done in professional athletics as well, in an effort to change the business as usual approach to racial inequities and mistreatment in the general society. It would be much more effective than t-shirts and hoodies.
Instead of wearing shirts with a nice-sounding slogan on them, or hoodies that connote illegal killings of Black folks, black armbands, or writing something on their shoes, Missouri football players chose the “nuclear option,” as some in Congress would call it. They put their prospective livelihoods on the line, and they put their scholarships on the line by actually doing something substantive rather than symbolic in response to their legitimate concerns about the conditions on their campus.
The sacrifice these young people are making cannot be overstated, and I commend them for being strong and committed enough to put core values before fame. I also hope the issue is resolved before this article goes to press; while they deserve our support and accolades, they should not have to suffer a loss of individual scholarships and their chances to make it to the professional ranks simply because they took a principled stand against racism. Other athletes have already fought that battle and some are still paying the price decades later.
Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, and Craig Hodges, just to name a few, took their stands against the system and took the blows that their peers were unwilling to take. They paid a hefty price for having the temerity to stand up and speak out. The Missouri football players now find themselves in a crucible of consciousness, and we should stand with them and assure that they do not suffer the same fate as their forerunners. If they are “blacklisted” by the NFL, Black people—and other sympathizers should boycott NFL games.
I pray that someone other than the usual suspects, who are simply looking for the nearest camera, microphone, and a big check to boot, will come to the students’ aide and help them work out their situation in the long term. They have done their part by exposing the underbelly of racial mistreatment at the University, and they have also exposed the school to a financial liability that more than likely does not end with Brigham Young University. How many more games are on Missouri’s schedule?
The economic lesson from the players’ threatened “work stoppage,” juxtaposed against Jonathan Butler’s life-threatening hunger strike, is quite revealing. Butler’s life was virtually ignored, but when the dollars came into play, things changed right away. The message: A Black life does not matter, but Black dollars do matter. Considering all the critical issues facing Black people in this country, we would do well to use economic power instead of relying on political influence to make appropriate changes to our overall condition.
We should celebrate the Missouri players for taking the “road less traveled” as they fight for their rights on their campus; they chose substance over symbolism, action over passivity. Rather than merely wearing their complaints on their chests or their shoes, they chose to wear their concerns on their hearts by letting the world know they are quite serious; they took their protest to the only level that gets results—the economic level. Much respect to those young men and their supporters at the university.
James Clingman is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. His latest book, “Black Dollars Matter! Teach Your Dollars How to Make More Sense,” is available on his website, Blackonomics.com.