A convergence of seemingly disparate interests took place this weekend when student-athletes on the football team at Missouri dared to venture outside of their athletic bubble and join in solidarity with other Mizzou student groups in protesting the inadequate treatment of marginalized groups on MU’s campus.
In light of multiple complaints of race-based incidents experienced by Black students, and the lack of action exhibited by the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe, at least 30 members of the football team announced they would not participate in team-related activities until Wolfe either resigned or was removed from his position as president. While this is not the first time student-athletes at universities across the country have taken to activism (though rare), what is remarkable is not only the alliance that was formed between student-athletes and their non-athlete peers and other student groups, but also the support of head coach Gary Pinkel in backing his players and agreeing to suspend team-related activities until this issue was resolved.
It became clear to those of us who were watching Wolfe resign from his position and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announce his plans to step down from his post that the addition of Black male student-athlete voices to the voices of other students who had been working to bring attention to these incidents on Mizzou’s campus had caused an interest convergence, to quote Derrick Bell. To be sure, canceling the Tigers’ game on Saturday against BYU would have cost the school more than $1 million, according to ESPN. While Coach Pinkel and the athletic director supported the student athletes’ choice to act in the interest of themselves and in solidarity with other students, what has captivated the national spotlight is the willingness of the student=athletes to wield their power of influence—which was tied directly to the income their sport generates for the university—to compel those who had heretofore either had no interest, or had been unwilling to address student concerns to act in the interest of black students on campus. Student-athletes, by lending their voices, proved successful at drawing the critical gaze of the national spotlight and in turn, getting the attention of the school’s governing board.
So what have we learned from this? The number one lesson was articulated in a statement on behalf of the Mizzou players when a member of the football team referenced their dual identities as both students and athletes, highlighting the importance of bridging the divide between those hyphenated words. The players’ actions embodied the student involvement, engagement and leadership attributes that the student development literature indicates has implications for the successful matriculation of college students. Arguably, student-athletes need more opportunities to explore the part of their student identity that enables them to easily transfer the discipline, communication and leadership skills gained through participation in sport to other areas of their student experience, including academics and social engagement outside of sports. These attributes truly enable the student-athlete to develop holistically, positioning them to be successful both on the field and off.
If we as faculty, staff and administrators are serious about not only making the voices of students heard, but effectively adjusting policy to meet the holistic educational and social needs of all of our students, we must take a play from Mizzou’s book to truly facilitate change and in doing so, increase the educational outcomes of our student-athletes in general, and Black male student-athletes specifically. Part of developing the “student” portion of the student-athlete’s identity puts onus on the university to create the space, whether through scheduling changes, internship opportunities or even leniency if necessary, for athletes to engage in activities outside of their sports that prepare them for life beyond the game. Having the support of coaches and athletic administrators is critical in accomplishing the goal of developing the whole student among student-athletes as Coach Pinkel has shown us.