Student-athletes Making Their Voices Heard on Controversial Issues

Updated May 9, 2016
Members and supporters of the student activist group Concerned Student 1950 chant during a march across the University of Missouri campus on March7in Columbia, Mo. (Liv Paggiarino/Missourian via AP)Members and supporters of the student activist group Concerned Student 1950 chant during a march across the University of Missouri campus on March7in Columbia, Mo. (Liv Paggiarino/Missourian via AP)

When the University of Missouri’s Black football players threatened a boycott in support of a protest about racial injustices on their campus last fall, it was a light-bulb moment for athletes’ activism.

More than 30 Black players declared they would not take part in meetings, practices or games until university President Tim Wolfe was removed from his position.

Wolfe had come under intense public scrutiny as a result of his alleged negligence in addressing Black students’ complaints about the hostile racial climate at the university. Jonathan Butler, a graduate student, staged a hunger strike to call attention to the plight of Black students in that situation.

Butler and the Black players were not alone in their dissent. The football coaching staff and the athletic department gave their complete backing. The Southeastern Conference, of which Missouri is a member, also gave its full support.

Making an impact

If the boycott had taken place, the school would have been required to pay a $1 million penalty to upcoming opponent Brigham Young University for not playing the game. The economic ramifications of this move produced the desired results very quickly. The players’ boycott was first announced on a Saturday. Two days later, Wolfe resigned.

“What happened at Missouri is an example of the power of student-athletes to effect change on college campuses,” says Dr. Emmett Gill, a professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio and founder of the Student-Athlete’s Human Rights Project, an advocacy group. “For the Missouri football team to join the boycott and then to force the resignation of the [MU] president within 36 hours was just incredible.”

The situation at Missouri, however, did not set a precedent. In recent years, college athletes have come together to speak out about issues of deep concern to them. Here’s a brief summary:

• Grambling State (2013) — The football players went on strike to protest poor facilities and travel arrangements in which they had to endure 15-hour bus rides one way to Kansas City and Indianapolis due to severe reductions in Louisiana’s state budget funding for higher education.

• Northwestern University (2014) — Wildcat athletes, led by quarterback Kain Colter, started a movement to unionize as a means to be recognized as employees of the university.

• University of Oklahoma (2015) — Head football coach Bob Stoops, along with head basketball coach Lon Kruger and approximately 100 athletes, attended an on-campus demonstration in response to an online video that went viral. In the video, several members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Oklahoma made racist chants.

Motivation and reason

Given the impact of what transpired at Missouri, coupled with situations involving Grambling, Northwestern and Oklahoma, there’s an indication that more protests are very likely to take place.

“I get the sense that college athletes are a little more emboldened by what’s happened and by the support they’ve gotten from fans, people in the media and college faculty members,” says Kevin Blackistone, a sports columnist for The Washington Post and panelist on Around the Horn, which airs on ESPN.

“There’s so much money involved, and there’s been so much attention on this issue of health and welfare and equitable treatment of college athletes in revenue-generating sports. That’s why I think we’ll see more of this.”

Gill applauds the stand that college athletes have taken regarding issues in their respective locales. Still, he wonders if the scope of that activism will go beyond those campus concerns.

“The question now is whether or not student-athletes will be motivated enough to stand up for national issues in collegiate sports,” he says. “Those issues include due process, adequate compensation and the guarantee of a constructive education that will lead to employment after their playing days are over. That’s what we hope will happen. But I’m not sure how long that will take.”

Public opinion about college athletes and the issues they face seems to be more favorable for athletes than it has in the past.

Even so, there are those who argue that scholarship jocks have no basis for their concerns about how they’re treated.

There are a good number of Bob Knight-types who hold fast to the notion that college athletes should be satisfied with not having to pay for tuition, books, plus room and board out of their own pockets.

James Satterfield Jr., a professor at Clemson University who studies race and sports, sees things differently. College athletes, he points out, do have a legitimate beef.

“College athletes, particularly football and basketball, spend in excess of 40 hours a week alone, just in their sport,” Satterfield says. “When you look at how much time is spent on a sport, and the compensation for head coaches and assistant coaches, it’s not difficult to understand why people want their voices heard. They know that, in terms of fans and media coverage, people come to see them [the athletes].”

Fear of reprisal has been one of the chief reasons why Black athletes, in general, have been reluctant to be more vocal in public about their concerns.

That trend has started to shift in a different direction. Athletes are more unified in their numbers when they choose to take a stand. It also helps that many schools are opting to eliminate one-year renewable scholarships and offer four-year guaranteed scholarships instead.

“It [reprisal] is a real threat,” says Gill.

“But when you look in retrospect at Grambling, Oklahoma and Missouri, it wasn’t an individual who spoke out. It was a group of individuals and/or a team.

“On a football team, it’s not enough for 10 people to speak up. But when 70 speak up, we’ve got a different ball game. Plus, when you have a guaranteed scholarship, you have a little more latitude in terms of opportunities to express your social consciousness.”

When it comes to athletes having the willingness to speak out about equitable treatment, many see it as ironic that the team concept that the coaches instill in athletes enables them to maintain a united front in a protest. Knowing that there is strength in numbers, athletes are beginning to have some understanding of the power of leverage they possess, experts say.

“The very control and camaraderie that coaches build and seek [with their teams] might be the very thing that comes back to bite them,” says Satterfield. “It’s as if the athletes are saying: ‘If you want us to be together, to battle and to win on the field, we’re going to be together. But we’re also going to take this thing and battle and win in other formats.’”

It’s no secret that there’s a train of thought that says athletes shouldn’t be empowered to protest like their non-jock counterparts.

The sentiments about punishing athletes who participate in protests go way beyond the negative comments about Mizzou’s Black football players that appeared on various outlets online. About a month after Wolfe stepped down from his post, Missouri state legislator Rick Brattin proposed a bill that would bar student-athletes from taking part in boycotts.

Under the provisions of that bill, athletes who go on strike would lose their scholarships. Coaches who support them would be fined; school employees who showed support would be fired. After undergoing a public firestorm of harsh criticism, Brattin withdrew the proposed legislation.

A lasting change

The growth of social media as an effective means of communication figures to play an increasingly significant role in helping to galvanize people for a common cause.

Missouri stands as a noteworthy example. When Butler announced his hunger strike on Twitter, he received 36 hits, according to a Washington Post video commentary.

When Mizzou’s Black football players joined the protest, the post received 55,000 hits.

“Social media really picked up on what was going on at Missouri once the Black football players threatened to walk out,” says Blackistone. “All of a sudden, a regional story became an international story.

“What we’ve seen since Missouri is that, across the country, students who want some sort of change on their campus are inspired to engage in mass movement protest. They hadn’t found the means to bring about the changes they want, so they imitate what happened at Missouri.”

Although there have been highly publicized protests involving athletes in recent years, it remains to be seen if the desired changes they seek will come to full fruition. Earl Smith, a sociology professor at George Mason University, doesn’t believe that any trends are emerging. Nor does he think that any lasting changes are coming right away.

“I don’t see these recent protests as a sign of a continuing trend,” he says. “And it’s not going to effect any change. Some people are trying to attach what went on in Missouri to everything under the sun—including the resignation or the firing of the president there. That was going to happen anyway.

“So, as for the extent of the change, I’m not so sure it’s going to measure up to the media coverage of the events.”

Smith contends that the focus of the Missouri protest movement had nothing to do with issues that are pertinent to athletics.

“We haven’t seen where one scholarship athlete has quit his or her team in outward protest over some of the conditions that they were fighting for,” he says. “What I saw [with Missouri] had little to do with how they were being treated on their teams.”