ALL IT TOOK was 32. At a school of 35,000, in a town of 115,000, among a sport that draws an audience of millions, not three dozen players stopped the world. On Saturday night 32 African-American players on Missouri's football team, in conjunction with a campus group, Concerned Student 1950, released a statement in response to a series of incidents and a climate of racial unrest this fall in Columbia. They offered the university a list of ultimatums—chief among them a call for system president Tim Wolfe's resignation—and said that they would cease all football-related activities until their demands were met. On Monday morning Wolfe resigned.
Missouri was off on Saturday after losing 31--13 to Mississippi State two days earlier. When the 32 players released their statement on Twitter, one of the biggest games of the college football season thus far, Alabama versus LSU, was underway, and still the nation noticed. This handful of men, some teenagers, turned the national spotlight to their campus in a way no other 32 could have done.
The concept of organizing for change among college football teams is not a new one. Earlier this year the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a petition by Northwestern players who were attempting to unionize. In 2013, Grambling's team boycotted activities for a week to protest the firing of coach Doug Williams, long bus trips and inadequate facilities. Their actions forced the university to forfeit a game against Jackson State. But this, at Missouri, is different. It goes beyond football. This is not an outdated weight room or bad turf. It's a tug-of-war over racial equality.
The players' stand was a response to a string of events that have unfolded in Columbia this fall. In September someone shouted racial epithets at Missouri student body president Payton Head, an African-American, on campus. In late October a swastika was smeared in feces on a campus building. On November 2nd, graduate student Jonathan Butler, frustrated by what he perceived to be a climate of racism and homophobia and a lack of concern from administrators, began a hunger strike. Cumulatively, it was too much, and as unrest simmered, players organized late last week, eventually drafting their ultimatum.
It was a move that could have fractured the Tigers. And though some players disagreed with the decision, the program publicly presented a unified face—and that should come as no surprise. After all, the program is no stranger to embracing issues bigger than the game it plays. Less than two years ago Missouri was thrust into the spotlight when Michael Sam, a defensive end from 2009 to '13, announced he was gay. The team had known for years, and its support of Sam as he prepared to become the first openly gay NFL player was resounding. This is a program that bucks the tradition and conservatism that often go hand-in-hand with football. And so on Sunday, the team called a meeting, and at its conclusion, coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photo of the majority of his players and staff. "The Mizzou Family stands as one," the tweet read. "We are united. We are behind our players."
What began as 32 players protesting against an establishment they perceived to be out of touch had become a statement of solidarity between all the players and at least part of that establishment—the coaches. United they represent the moneymaking part, the front-facing part, the group Wolfe and the rest of Missouri's administration could least afford to ignore.
That's the thing about football: Affix it to a social issue and we pay attention. Richie Incognito. Greg Hardy. Adrian Peterson. So much of that focus, though, is negative, the spotlight a means of condemnation. We watch athletes hide behind their celebrity, and we rail against it. But Missouri's players catalyzed a different process. They are now synonymous with positive change, and they are a benchmark for other teams and other players seeking the courage to make their voices heard. "This should be a testament to athletes across the country: You do have power," says sophomore defensive end Charles Harris. Starting running back Russell Hansbrough, one of the original 32, tweeted this Saturday night: "Never thought I would be in place or time like this to actually make a difference."
What these athletes set in motion is about more than Tim Wolfe or the University of Missouri. It's about more than 100 young men from every corner of this country harnessing the power of the sport they're told to blindly serve. With Wolfe's resignation the Tigers will resume football activities and play their scheduled game on Saturday. But its outcome will not matter. They've already won.
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TEAM UNITY Pinkel (right) let the world know early on that Mizzou's coaches supported the players' decision.
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