Recent events at the University of Missouri leading to the resignation of two senior officials demonstrated the power of sports on society, Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said.
University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigned Monday, followed shortly by chancellor of the flagship campus, R. Bowen Loftin. The resignations came after months of protests concerning racism and graduate student affairs, but just one day after the school’s football team threatened to strike until Wolfe resigned or was removed from office.
“We are not the most important thing that happens on our campus, but we are the most visible,” Bjork said. “I think what this showed, as much as anything, is when athletics got involved, the story escalated to a whole new level. I think it shows the powerful platform athletics on a college campus can have.”
Bjork said sports may be an effective avenue for the discussion of diversity issues college campuses across the country face.
“I think we all, every day, have an obligation to talk about this, to learn. Here, we obviously have a unique opportunity because of our history to learn and continue to educate,” Bjork said.
The Legion of Black Collegians, a black student organization at Mizzou, posted a photograph on Twitter Saturday of more than 30 of the school’s black football players and a declaration of the strike.
Mizzou’s athletics department released a joint statement the following day from head football coach Gary Pinkel and athletics director Mack Rhoades in support of the players’ actions.
Bjork commended the decision of Pinkel and Rhoades to support their players, saying athletics programs exist first and foremost to serve student athletes.
When ESPN interviewed 13 college athletes about race issues in September, Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson said he felt sickened when he saw confederate flags on campus.
On Oct. 20, the Ole Miss Associated Student Body Senate voted to request the removal of the Mississippi state flag, the only remaining United States flag to bear Confederate imagery, from campus. The University took down the last state flag on Oct. 26.
“I love the fact that C.J. was vocal. We support him in those comments he made, and if he was a catalyst, then great,” Bjork said.
The Mizzou football team’s request was tied to the hunger strike of graduate student Jonathan Butler, which began Nov. 2 and called for Wolfe’s resignation.
Butler, a member of a campus activist group called Concerned Student 1950, has said he began researching his hunger strike after the group’s interruption of the annual homecoming parade last month appeared ineffective.
Elizabeth Loutfi, editor-in-chief of Mizzou’s student-run newspaper, The Maneater, said the group has been effective in making student and faculty aware of these issues, as well as getting them involved in solutions.
Loufti said the group’s fight can be traced to the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, when the incident brought the conversation of racial issues on Mizzou’s campus into a new light. However, Wolfe’s resignation is just one of the demands published by Concerned Student 1950.
“The biggest message is it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort on everyone’s part,” Loufti said.
University of Mississippi’s NAACP chapter president, Buka Okoye, said his chapter’s goals of institutionalizing diversity are similar to those of Concerned Student 1950—named for the year Mizzou enrolled its first black student. But for Okoye, slow and steady is simply not enough.
“For the first time, students are stepping up and demanding that these changes happen, because gradualistic approaches are not going to solve anything,” Okoye said.
Okoye said Butler’s hunger strike fit a typical pattern for non-violent protests.
“These are tactics that, for the most part, you learn at any and every conference or training,” Okoye said. “Everyone learns escalation tactics. A hunger strike is at the top of an escalation plan.”
Okoye said UM NAACP considered getting the Ole Miss football team involved if efforts to remove the flag were ineffective.
“Any time we’re rolling out a tactic and not getting the response we need, we’re escalating,” Okoye said.
Protests have continued on Mizzou’s campus throughout the week, including student walk-outs and crowds of people encamped in the university’s Mel Carnahan Quadrangle.
Mizzou senior Ryan Warnes arrived with co-workers to the demonstrations Monday as Wolfe’s resignation was announced.
“Word traveled from the center of the group to the periphery, where we were, by a wave of cheers,” Warnes said. “It’s a shame it takes a graduate student starving himself to see change, but it will be interesting to see if Wolfe resigning will actually change anything.”
Charles K. Ross, associate professor of history and director of the African American studies program at the University of Mississippi, said the public stance taken by the Mizzou football players was courageous.
“They, in essence, have a lot more to lose than the average student,” Ross said. “They are there on a scholarship that can be taken away on a yearly basis.”
Ross said these players’ influence comes from the revenues generated by major collegiate football programs and the players’ instrumental roles in those programs’ successes.
The actions of the Mizzou football team may have set a precedent for similar programs throughout the country, said Ross.
“The University has the responsibility of being aggressive when you have these kinds of racially insensitive acts that are taking place, because in the 21st century, the idea that these guys have got to now just take this and roll with it, I think that’s something that is going to be in the past, and it’s going to be in the past on a lot of other campuses and with a lot of other athletes,” Ross said. “This is not probably the last situation that you’re going to see where these athletes take this kind of stance.”