At left, members of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 address a crowd at the University of Missouri in Columbia on Nov. 9 after the announcement that university system President Tim Wolfe would resign. At right, Paul Conrad’s “Chain Reaction” sculpture, on the grounds of the Santa Monica (Calif.) Civic Center. (The photos are by Jeff Roberson / AP, and Ed Uthman / Flickr, respectively.)
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
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This week at Truthdig we celebrate two activist movements that have had significant impacts: the University of Missouri football team’s protest against racism and the movement that saved Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad’s sculpture “Chain Reaction.”
After several incidents of racism at the University of Missouri, including the appearance of a swastika made of feces on a dormitory wall, 30 black players on the Mizzou football team joined protests against university President Tim Wolfe’s handling of the situation. The Nation’s Dave Zirin explains on “Democracy Now!” that the players’ decision to go on strike not only meant that Mizzou would have had to forfeit its Saturday game against Brigham Young University, costing the University of Missouri a $1 million penalty, but also put the ongoing movement on the map thanks to the popularity of college football. Shortly after the players—supported by their coach, Gary Pinkel—joined the protest, Wolfe, who had prioritized football at the university in ways that included seeking cuts to graduate students’ health benefits, resigned.
The Huffington Post notes that the players put their “scholarships on the line” when choosing to protest, also reporting that their participation, while key, is part of a larger movement that had been growing for several weeks at the University of Missouri and nationwide since Michael Brown was killed in August 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., an incident that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Regarding the events that led to Wolfe’s resignation, Zirin also writes
Athletes—so often scripted as powerless—have tremendous social power on campus. Too often, those sympathetic with college athletes define them by their hardships instead of by their dazzling, inescapable strengths. We rightfully look at their absence of due process, their lack of access to an income, their hellacious practice and travel schedules, their inability to take the classes of their choosing, and their year-to-year scholarships that consign them to being more “athlete students” than “student athletes.”
Yet they also have a power that if exercised can bring the powerful to their knees. So much of the political and social economy of state universities is tied to football, especially in big-money conferences like Southeastern Conference, where Mizzou plays. The multibillion-dollar college football playoff contracts, the multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, and the small fortunes that pour into small towns on game day don’t happen without a group of young men willing to take the field. The system is entirely based on their acceptance of their own powerlessness as the gears of this machine. If they choose to exercise their power, the machine not only stops moving: It becomes dramatically reshaped.
The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement threatens the operating of this machinery like nothing since the black athletic revolt of the 1960s and 1970s. These conferences, particularly the Southeastern Conference, field teams that, in the words of sports sociologist Harry Edwards, “look like Ghana on the field and Sweden in the stands.” In other words, black football players in particular have a social power often unseen and not commented upon. It’s there all the same.
The University of Missouri protests, sparked by the organization Concerned Student 1950, may also have paved the way for a more powerful form of campus protest. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. writes in Time magazine:
The combination of continued student disruption, the economic leverage of the football players (people who can’t be so easily discarded), and the administrative power of the faculty added up to a force the university simply could not ignore.
And what’s more these activists have given students at other schools a working blueprint for change. Can you imagine what would happen at Ohio State or the University of Alabama or UCLA or any major institution of higher learning if similar coalitions dared to act in a similar vein?
And while the Mizzou team’s courageous dissent proved effective, news of another community coming together to protest a different form of violence reached our ears.