Missouri reveals where the real power lies

The Observer editorial board

University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation on Monday in Columbia, Mo.
University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation on Monday in Columbia, Mo. AP

It became instantly clear this week who holds the power at the University of Missouri – and perhaps at campuses across America.

A graduate student went on a hunger strike and hadn’t eaten in a week. Faculty members had staged a walkout. Students had blocked the president’s car during a parade. A tent city had been set up.

All of that had done little to suggest that system President Tim Wolfe’s job was endangered over racial tension on campus. Indeed, he had released a statement suggesting an “ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues.”

Then the football team weighed in. Game over. A story that hadn’t spread much beyond Columbia, Mo., went national in a moment.

Thirty-two black players announced they would not play again until Wolfe resigned or was fired. The next day, football Coach Gary Pinkel confirmed that his team and staff were united behind those players. The next day, Wolfe was out, as was Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

For years, sports have taken on an outsized role at American universities, especially at Division I schools. The athletes bring in cash and shape the schools’ reputations, and coaches can make 10 times as much as presidents.

That influence has sparked questions about whether the NCAA and the schools should share some of the largesse with the players who are creating it. But until now, players’ power has been confined to that conversation, and kept apart from social issues such as racism.

The Missouri episode is a pivotal moment that could change that, as players, coaches and administrators across the country take note and recognize the power the players have. That power stems from fans’ obsession with sports and adoration of the athletes, and in turn the money at stake.

In this case, the football players’ power was used for good. Wolfe had offered a phlegmatic response to a series of racist encounters on campus. When protesters blocked his car in a parade, he failed to respond, waiting for police to disperse them, and his car tapped one of them. Last week, when protesters asked if he knew what “systematic oppression” was, he offered a ham-handed answer that led protesters to feel he was blaming them for that oppression. His detachment from the racial tensions roiling campus was obvious, and if it took football players’ threats to attract national attention, so be it.

We hope college athletes elsewhere, though, recognize the tricky balance they need to strike when it comes to social activism. They have tremendous influence and, employed responsibly, they can use it to spur societal progress. But football players shouldn’t try or be allowed to dictate policy at the country’s institutions of higher education. They should wield their newfound power wisely and only in exceptional circumstances. If they don’t, they might find they don’t have as much power as they thought.