The resignation was in part spurred by a tweet sent out by thirty black members of the famous Mizzou Tigers football team, who declared that they would refuse to take the field for the upcoming game against Brigham Young University unless Wolfe stepped down. The action was soon met with support from other black and white members of the team, as well as the head coach, Gary Pinkel.
Anger at the administration has been slowly mounting over charges of inaction in the face of persistent racism, particularly incidents where racial slurs were used against the Mizzou Columbia student body president, who is black. Other such instances of blatant racism in the past year include reports of a swastika written in feces on a dormitory floor and wall, and the interruption of a Legion of Black Collegians play rehearsal by an inebriated white male hurling racial epithets at the actors.
In response, the school attempted to implement mandatory diversity training for its incoming freshman, but most students viewed this as an ineffective “knee-jerk” reaction to the recent events on campus. One of the most important events was on October 10th, when campus protest group Concerned Student 1950—referring to the first year black students were allowed to attend Mizzou—blocked Tim Wolfe’s car during homecoming. From this point on, the group and other protestors began an extensive dialogue with the president that involved hunger strikes and potential boycotts and ended in his resignation, immediately followed by that of the University Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who announced he would step down from his administrative position into an advanced research role in 2016.
Many of the students who took part in the protest were inspired by the demonstrations in Ferguson, feeling a duty to both themselves and their community to stand up. Recently, organizing and activism has visibly resurfaced across the country, most prominently in the Black Lives Matter movement.
This is not the first campus movement started to fight racism. Schools such as UCLA, USC, and the University of Oklahoma have all experienced similar incidents on their respective campuses over the past few months. But what is interesting about this particular protest is the role of athletes in its evolution. At a school like the University of Missouri, whose football team is among the best in the country, the potential for an athlete-led boycott gained widespread attention. Additionally, the financial cost of a boycott —the fee of up to $1 million the University of Missouri would have had to pay its upcoming opponents BYU should the contest have been cancelled—made it a top priority for the University to address the resignation requests in a timely manner.
High-profile athletes, both at the college and professional level, enjoy a unique public platform. Arthur Ashe leveraged his status as a top star in the tennis world to petition for sanctions against South African Apartheid as well as other issues such as the treatment of Haitian immigrants. There have been numerous athletes over the years that have used their position in the media and society to combat racism, from Jackie Robinson and Lebron James to international soccer stars Dani Alves and Kevin Prince-Boateng. More recently, the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team took a stand against its owner, Donald Sterling, after he was caught on tape making racist comments.
But it is important to emphasize that it’s not just their words that make the media take notice: it's also the money. Professional athletes bring in millions of dollars annually for their sponsors, their clubs, their teams, and the media. So when an athlete takes a stand on a subject or threatens a boycott, the clubs, teams, sponsors, and media all take notice—with the financial cost of not doing anything in mind. This power, wielded by an athlete, can make his or her voice more meaningful and effective in influencing tangible, sustainable change.