Football and Social Change

I am teaming up on this week's blog with my Notre Dame colleague Gena Robinson. Last week was an interesting week in the world of college football, and at colleges and universities across the country.

A lot changed at the University of Missouri recently. Tim Wolfe, the President of the University of Missouri system resigned. His resignation was followed by that of R. Bowen Loftin, University Chancellor. The resignations came after months of unrest on the campus, culminating in a protest at the Homecoming parade, a student's week-long hunger strike, and shortly after thirty members of the Tigers football team went on strike. The protests continue, but it seems (at least from this distance) that a dialogue has begun in earnest. It is frustrating that it took the threat of a football strike to bring change when a hunger strike and months of other protests did not gain much traction. On the other hand, it is heartening to see these young student-athletes join their community to advocate for equality.

The football strike began on a Saturday night when 30 student-athletes, all African-American, pledged not to participate in any "football related activities" until President Wolfe stepped down and the University had addressed the racial animosity at the school. As the 30 athletes took to Twitter, they joined the #ConcernedStudent1950 project. The group name refers to the first year African-Americans were permitted to enroll at the University of Missouri. These young men used their positions as student-athletes to get the attention of university administrators and government officials, as well as local and national news organizations. In refusing to partake in football related activities, many players risked their spots on the team and their scholarships.

Football runs deep at the University of Missouri, and the team has been a routine contender for division championships in the SEC. While typically a force on the field, the team used its position of power to advocate against racism and injustice. On Sunday morning, head football coach Gary Pinkel pledged his support for his players, saying: "We all must come together with leaders from across our campus to tackle these challenging issues and we support our student-athletes right to do so." Several members of the team did the same. Practice was canceled on Sunday. By Monday morning, most major news outlets had picked up the story -- reporting on both the strike and the underlying issues that triggered the action.

Throughout this non-violent protest, these student athletes demonstrated courage and a commitment to social justice. They put the needs of their campus community ahead of their desire to play a game. This is not the first time the Missouri football team made headlines for opposing discrimination. They stood by their teammate 2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL.

Sports have the power to bring communities together and change mindsets. Hopefully, this brave stand by a football team will make it easier for university administrators to do what is right for its own sake.