What Mizzou Knew

One year later, the University of Missouri football team's boycott still hasn't been duplicated. Colin Kaepernick's silent protest is a start, but what if pro athletes refused to play?


Illustration by Brian Stauffer

September 21, 2016

Bleacher Report

A protest, in order to be effective, must either be dramatic enough to inspire swift, direct action (see: Thich Quang Duc, aka The Burning Monk, circa 1963) or easily duplicable and therefore sustainable over an indefinite period of time (see: Kaepernick, Colin). The most effective protest hits a sweet spot between those two, where the action is so dramatic and repeatable that merely the fear of its repetition can force the most powerful of institutions to make huge concessions.

A year ago, the Missouri Tigers hit that sweet spot. The University of Missouri campus had become the epicenter of black student protest—disrupting the homecoming parade to confront then-university president Tim Wolfe, threatening a graduate-student walkout, holding a nightly Occupy-style encampment and more. The movement went largely ignored by the administration, however, until graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike and started garnering national media attention.

AP Images

Members of the school's black student protest group, Concerned Student 1-9-5-0, hold hands at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. 

But these tensions had been building long before Butler stopped eating. This was simply an exposure of the wounds that have existed since America’s founding, the same wounds that have inspired radical action by the oppressed for centuries, and pushed college football players to take a course of action that their professional counterparts have historically taken in service of their own paychecks.

“I realized there was an issue with racism before I got to Mizzou,” Storm Ervin, a student who attended Mizzou from 2011-2015, told me via email. She described an incident in Columbia while she was a high school senior, when two white men placed cotton balls on the lawn of the Black Culture Center “to mimic the conditions of chattel slavery.” She recalls witnessing three students—two white men and one black woman—leave the campus bookstore, only for the theft detector to go off, and only for the black woman to be stopped and searched. Black students, including the Missouri Students Association president Payton Head, reported other students on campus yelling racial slurs at them. “As far as institutional racism,” Ervin said, “I realized they let overt racism fly. There was no discipline for doing to black kids what you pleased.”

Ervin, fed up with what was becoming for her and others a hostile and unsafe atmosphere, put out a call to some of her fellow students to see if they would be interested in holding demonstrations to push their administration for change. Ten people answered, and together they formed Concerned Student 1-9-5-0, so named for the first year black students were admitted to the University of Missouri.

Among the students’ demands were the recruitment and retention of more black faculty and staff (they demanded that Mizzou get to 10 percent black faculty and staff by the 2017-18 academic year), as well as an increase in funding for a counseling center that would be used to hire mental-health professionals of color, and the development of a mandatory “racial awareness and inclusion curriculum.” Before all of that, Tim Wolfe would need to apologize for his negligence in addressing student concerns about racism, acknowledge his white male privilege and resign (or be removed) from his position as university president. Stepping down seemed to be the biggest non-starter.

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Jonathan Butler (center), a University of Missouri grad student who went on a seven-day hunger strike, is greeted by a crowd of students on campus on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. (Getty Images)

“The only demand we would have received without the help of the football team is an apology from Tim Wolfe, which he wouldn't have issued had Jonathan Butler not went on the hunger strike,” Ervin said.

On the seventh day of Butler’s hunger strike, there was no rest, and there was no football. The work was just beginning, and the black members of the football team issued a statement: “We will no longer participate in any football-related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” Thirty-two young men joined in arms and in struggle.

The players had discussed the strike among themselves, building consensus, and while they were in contact with Concerned Student 1-9-5-0, the action was ultimately one of the athletes’ own undertaking. Two days later, Wolfe resigned.

"There was no discipline for doing to black kids what you pleased."


“Student protests and a man on a hunger strike wasn't enough to move the administration,” Ervin said. “But the threat of losing a million-plus dollars—coupled with the constant negative international attention, which came as a result of the football team protesting—got more people to care.”

A disrupted homecoming wasn’t enough. The threat of a graduate-student walkout wasn’t enough. A nightly encampment wasn’t enough. A hunger striker’s potential dead body wasn’t enough. We often speak theoretically about the power athletes wield to enact social change—we are talking about it more now than ever—but here were real, tangible results from real, influential players. They won.

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Getty Images

Colin Kaepernick kneels in protest during the national anthem before a game against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. He has done so for both 49ers games this season.

It’s tempting to write the Mizzou football team into the narrative of a resurgence of athlete activism. Indeed they belong, but they also stand out. For all of the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts on basketball courts and supportive tweets this football season, which are very much welcome, still no single athlete has attempted to duplicate the Mizzou football team’s tactic. No one has yet drawn on the huge and tangible economic power of sports to enact radical and lasting change.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem has been a refreshing addition to the world of sports activism, as it is a direct and unapologetic indictment of systemic racism in the United States. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem in the name of those slain by police violence is pointed and makes all the right people very uncomfortable. His protest asks people to consider: Do you care more about blind allegiance to symbols, or ensuring that the rights those symbols are meant to represent can be enjoyed by all of us? He is sharp in his responses to his critics, and measured in his message to the rest of us: “People want to have the opportunity to live an equal and just life," he said Sunday. "That's ultimately what they are supporting.”

But between the moment when he kneels for the anthem and the time dozens of reporters push a microphone into his face, Kaepernick still goes out and does his job. His silent protest is no boycott. It has the power to irritate, but not to deprive. It moves discussion, but not systems. It asks, rather than demands.

The number of athletes joining in this form of protest is growing at all levels—high school teams are sitting out the anthem, too, and there are early signs NBA players will do more than read a prepared statement at an award show. Though, you have to wonder: Is a silent protest by athletes on the biggest stage dramatic enough to produce any substantive change? Kaepernick says he doesn’t want to kneel forever, meaning he would like to see the end of police killings and some establishment of justice. But how long will it take before the kneeling and the black power fists are tolerated as a mildly unpleasant but ultimately harmless distraction?

A year ago, the intrepid football players of Mizzou weren’t looking to cause a distraction. They were threatening to take the game away—and with it, the money.

"People want to have the opportunity to live an equal and just life."


The economic power of even a poorly performing collegiate sports team (the Tigers went 5-7 last year, and they lost again Saturday) is such that Missouri was poised to lose millions of dollars if the boycotters refused to take the field last fall, a million alone for simply breaking a contract for a game at the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium against BYU. The ripple effect on local businesses that depend on large crowds spending in college towns on game day gets felt way beyond the quad. The University of Missouri and the city of Columbia literally could not afford to allow these protests to go on. From the standpoint of the protestor, there is no spot sweeter. The Tigers didn’t get everything on the students’ list of demands—that goal of 10 percent black faculty and staff is a ways off—but the changes are significant to this day. They won.

Still, you have to wonder whether the fear of the powerful institutions will remain. What these students did fits the criteria for extremely effective protest, except so far, no other athletes have been willing to duplicate. This didn’t happen in a vacuum—there was a larger movement outside of the football team already in place, with a specific set of demands and a plan of action for implementation. The football players found themselves reflected in the movement and decided to use the power afforded them, actively, to drive change.

“Let this be a testament to all the other athletes across the country. You do have power,” one of the Mizzou football players, Charles Harris, said less than a year ago. “It started with a few individuals on our team and look at what it’s become.”

But what has that inspirational moment of protest become? Those 32 daring amateur athletes drew no salaries. They signed no endorsement deals. The impact of a professional sports boycott against racial injustice—not by T-shirt or by tweet but by sheer refusal to play—would be enormous. If the Kansas City Chiefs decided not to play the Jets this Sunday, it could make allies out of the formerly apathetic. If LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers, Stephen Curry and Bryce Harper were all to announce that they would no longer play until the Movement for Black Lives policy platform was implemented at every level of government, and more of their colleagues began to follow suit, there would be a massive disruption in the status quo. At what point do the pros recognize where their true power lies and seize it?

They give us more questions to ponder: How much do our hero athletes believe in the cause of ending racial injustice? And what are they willing to sacrifice? How many Michael Browns, Korryn Gaineses, Alton Sterlings, Philando Castiles, Sandra Blands and Freddie Grays must there be before the silent protests start to feel as insufficient as the symbols they are protesting?

The nature of protest is hopeful and unpredictable. The Missouri Tigers put uncertain futures on the line for a cause they may not have won. That courage is hard to duplicate. That courage makes history.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching and a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @mychalsmith

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