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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Group Power of Athletes at Mizzou

The University of Missouri football players who threatened to boycott upcoming games until their concerns about racism on campus were properly addressed are to be applauded. They succeeded in effecting the resignation of University President Tim Wolfe. A central issue in this episode is that they recognized the power of group action in bringing about change in their culture.

College athletes have been routinely exploited insofar as their sports talents generate millions in revenue to the school, and they have been penalized when accepting perks from boosters in violation of NCAA rules. The protest at Mizzou represents a form of push back.

The larger implication, however, is how this action can spur a breakthrough in a wider movement among college athletes to negotiate for change in policies that they deem to be unjust or unfair. The collective power of the group is always exponentially greater than individual protests, even when the individual has big-time star power. In 2014, LeBron James, the NBA kingpin, was outspoken about the need for the league to replace Donald Sterling as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, because of his offensive comments and attitudes about African Americans. James's assertions had some impact on the process of ousting Sterling, but as a voice of one, many observers felt he was overstepping his role as a premier basketball player. The NBA is composed predominantly of African American players, who presumably were especially offended by Sterling's views, and a more formidable group action could have exerted a greater pressure on the league to scrutinize the background and character of all past, present and future team owners.

The Mizzou players were also courageous in taking a risk in demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice aspects of their future athletic careers by not playing in games in which they might excel; and thereby further their opportunity to become a more desirable pick when they became eligible for the NFL draft. Psychologically, these players cherish the dream of rising to stardom, fame, and glory. This dream has often been cultivated and reinforced by those around them since the age of eight; and many players come from an economically impoverished background and view football as a potential path to a better future. These factors make it all the more remarkable that these young men were capable of putting their dreams temporarily on hold, for the greater good of responding to their social conscience; and it must be very gratifying to them to have had a substantial positive impact on the system. Their stand also serves as a model for athletes regarding bystander awareness and intervention in domestic violence and relationship violence situations.

It is also significant that the University of Missouri players achieved their goal in a nonviolent way. Recently, an incident in Texas at a John Jay High School football game gained headlines and images went viral of two players assaulting a referee (encouraged by an assistant coach), allegedly for perceived racial slurs. The players had plowed into the referee in a violent way and were later suspended from the team. It was an unfortunately misguided approach by the enraged players, and represents a missed opportunity to exert team unity and group power to enlist the school's coach, athletic director and principal as advocates to demand that the organization that appoints referees should remove the referee in question from the roster.

Of course, the ability of group power among sports players to effect change in policy depends upon the cause at hand. In 1947, when Jackie Robinson was about to become the first African American MLB player, a caucus of mostly southern white players on the Brooklyn Dodgers formulated a petition in opposition to allowing Robinson to play on the team. When Leo Durocher, the vociferous Dodgers manager got wind of the plan, he called for a midnight meeting of the team and read them the riot act. Essentially, he declared that he didn't care what color Robinson was, that all that mattered was that he could help the ballclub to win games; and that the agitated playersneeded to work harder to keep their jobs; because Robinson represented only the first in a new era of racial opportunity in MLB. The rest is history and Robinson became a star and paved the way for others to follow. It is interesting to note that Robinson embraced a vision that his baseball stature could be a platform for equal rights throughout the nation, and his legacy is as much about his dominant role role in social activism as it is about being a Hall of Famer.

Let's give kudos to the players at Mizzou, almost 70 years later, for effectively pursuing the fight against racism at our Universities.

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