[Note: Drew Laurens will continue his interview with Jacob Sumners in his next installment on December 20th.]
By Drew Laurens
It is my belief that once a university invests heavily in a sports program, then the moral compass of the institution needs to be retuned. This is because all too often the lesson being taught at places whose sports teams have greater import than educational programs is this: when the price is right, then what is right will be done.
In Missouri a few weeks ago, there was news of a hunger strike, a school divided, and a university president, to use the terminology of the press, “toppled” from his position. The story of ConcernedStudent1950, as the on-campus protest movement has chosen to call itself, is still being lived out by the students and faculty at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) in Columbia, MO. The antagonizing incidents preceding the protests include racist and homophobic slurs being hurled at black students, as well as a particularly disgusting display of swastika in a campus bathroom. Even without the most recent events, racial tensions are taut there; after all, this is the same state in which Michael Brown was killed by a police officer just last year.
But it isn’t just that these censurable acts, among many others, have occurred. The object of any protest is to change the culture surrounding the attitude that produced the event in the first place. So what is actually being protested is the University’s responses to these incidents — or, rather, the lack of any response, as viewed by the students most affected by them.
The school’s president, one Tim Wolfe, seemed flippant with his disregard for the concerns of the student body, as evidenced by this account of a confrontation during a parade:
“Then the driver of Wolfe’s car tried to drive around [the students]. The students moved their line, arms linked, to block the driver, who continued to try to push forward. The driver again tried to get through a moment later, coming in contact with one of the students…
…Wolfe remained silent the entire time. With the car’s top down, he could easily see the entire encounter unfolding right in front of him.”
Jonathan Butler, the activist and grad student who can be seen with the megaphone in the videos accompanying the above article, began a hunger strike sometime after this confrontation, which occurred on October 10th. The parade incident was not addressed by Wolfe until November 6th, when he issued an apology. The following day, according to this article, the University’s football team decided to support Butler in his hunger strike by not playing or practicing until he ate.
A hunger strike is an incredible and historically powerful act of nonviolent rebellion. The fact that people still do them and that they still work is incredible to me. I am fully capable of acknowledging the level of privilege I’ve enjoyed, and I can tell you now I’d rather do quite a few things than go without food for just one day. Oh, certainly there are causes about which I feel very strongly, but never have I ever thought to myself, ‘I’d starve to help make that change.’ So simply from a privileged point of view, a hunger strike is a courageous act. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, but I do admire the commitment it takes to see something like that through. Especially since it was successful, in the case of Mizzou: a day after the president of the University said he would not resign, the board of curators convened, and Tim Wolfe resigned.
Except that Butler’s hunger strike was not the reason Wolfe resigned. I don’t mind going on the record saying that barring an exclusive statement from the man himself, Wolfe cared not one whit for the hunger — or life — of Jonathan Butler. No, it is my belief that the second the Tigers announced their intentions to end all football-related activities until Butler ate, the curators made a decision. The hastily-called meeting held by the board was a short but necessary stage production meant to impress the rest of the world. The curators knew what would be decided. Wolfe was told what to do and he did it.
Here’s the reason: Saturday the 14th of November, Mizzou was slated to play Brigham Young University (BYU). The football team announced a strike on Sunday the 8th, and they followed through with it the next day. However, had the strike continued (as it presumably would have in the event that Wolfe remained present through Saturday), Mizzou would have had to forfeit the game and the school would have had to pay BYU one million dollars. Essentially, the University of Missouri Tigers, with the full support of the coaches, held a million dollars hostage until the president of the University stepped down. They hit the curators and the president right where it hurt. The Tigers did something they didn’t want to do — but they felt that they had to, in order to promote change, and they did it by threatening the one thing as precious to the University as its reputation.
So on the one hand, you have an inactive school administration, who, in the midst of a state experiencing turmoil and unrest that set off national shockwaves last year, sits blithely at its post, a passive party to systemic racism at its worst and most destructive level. On the other, you have student athletes of all races who want to make a difference with their fellow students and recognized the power they held if they stood together. Looking at the evidence presented in the links above, it is unclear whether or not Wolfe’s dismissive attitude and behaviors are the result of a truly malign personality or are just regular apathy. I am inclined to think this whole debacle is the result of the latter on a corporate level. And if the callousness Wolfe (and by extension, the school administration) displayed wasn’t the result of calculated, deliberate behavior, I’ll bet that the million-dollar fine wasn’t calculated by the players. But it certainly was counted by the curators, and it doesn’t take an economics degree to understand why.
The school couldn’t take a chance, however slim, that the football team wouldn’t play. I’m even willing to consider that they were worried about more than the money. The school’s image and reputation have already been tarnished, according to their perspective, and losing a million bucks just because somebody won’t resign is unconscionable. It would change the way the entire country looked at a school like Mizzou. They chose to be on the right side of history because they couldn’t afford to be on the wrong side in the court of public opinion. It would harm their ability to get money in the future.
So yes, the right thing happened at Mizzou. The right things will continue to happen, despite the best efforts of other racist and bigoted people to stop them. My question is will the right things continue to be done for the wrong reasons? I hope not.