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University of Missouri president resigns after football team threatens to strike over campus racism

By Dave Schneider |
November 12, 2015
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Columbia, MO - On Nov. 9, both the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri announced their resignation after mass protests by the student body against racism on campus. The announcement came after about 30 African American players on the school's football team threatened to strike and not play Saturday's game if University President Tim Wolfe did not resign. Had the football strike taken place and the team not played, the school would have suffered a $1 million fine for breaking its contract with Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

The players announced the strike on Nov. 8, less than a week before taking the field against Brigham Young University. Their stand won the support of their head coach, Gary Pinkel, the University of Missouri's athletic department, and most of the team. Black students make up almost 50% of the team's football players and nearly 70% of the team's scholarship players, according to the faculty-published Columbia Missourian.

The University of Missouri, which is the largest public or private university in the state, is overwhelmingly white. White students make up 79% of all undergraduates, while African Americans, make up just 8% of undergraduates, according to the New York Times.

Since September, Black students, faculty and allies at the University of Missouri have protested the administration's failure to address racism on campus. The students, including student body President Payton Head, began demanding that administration take action after a series of racist incidents. These incidents ranged from repeated racial slurs to deranged racist graffiti to the disruption of a Legion of Black Collegians meeting by a drunken white student last month.

Since then, Wolfe and the university administration faced mass protests and rallies organized by Concerned Student 1950, an activist group formed in response to these incidents.

One student in particular, Jonathan Butler, launched a hunger strike on Nov. 2 demanding President Wolfe's resignation. Butler, like many Black student activists in Missouri, was a veteran of the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the racist police murder of Michael Brown in 2014. After Wolfe's resignation, Butler ended his hunger strike.

With strike threat, University of Missouri football players leveraged their labor and won

Athletics, particularly football, are big business for schools like the University of Missouri. In 2012, the university joined the highly competitive Southeastern Conference (SEC), which also includes top nationally ranked teams like the University of Florida Gators and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.

Beyond its success on the field, however, the SEC is the highest earning conference in NCAA athletics. During the 2013-2014 school year, the SEC generated over $455 million in revenue, with an estimated $347 million coming from televised games, particularly football. Over the same period, the University of Missouri took in over $76 million in revenue from its athletics program.

To drum up interest in games and make more revenue, university athletic programs will sometimes hold matchups in different cities or stadiums, like the annual Florida-Georgia grudge-match played every year at Everbank Field, which is the Jacksonville Jaguars' NFL stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. These stadiums are not just venues. They are big businesses themselves, often owned by giant corporations or extremely wealthy individuals. As such, stadiums will contract with the schools to insure that the games are played and generate profit for the owners.

Of course, all of these profits and revenues are only possible because of the talent and labor of the student athletes themselves. While some student athletes receive scholarships from their schools, most receive absolutely no financial compensation for their labor as competitors. Even though their work generates literally billions of dollars in revenue and profits for universities and corporations across the U.S., student athletes seldom share in any of that wealth.

When the players at the University of Missouri announced that they would not play Saturday's game unless President Wolfe resigned, they threatened to strike.

The players' strike threat worked because it effectively shut down the university's revenue stream from its football program. A substantial number of players refusing to play and withholding their labor meant that the university could not have fielded a team in Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 14. The immediate consequence of breaking the university's contract for the game would have been a $1 million fine. Additionally, the strike threat also leveraged other long-term interests for the university, like the team's recruiting potential and its chance at playing in a coveted Bowl game at the end of the year.

Facing these consequences and a growing movement of students and faculty, both President Wolfe and the university chancellor announced their resignations a day later. Simultaneously, the university's Board Of Curators conceded to many of the movement's demands, including required diversity training for all students and faculty.

Emboldened by this victory, student activists at the University of Missouri vowed to continue the struggle against racism in higher education.

Lessons for the labor movement

While these electrifying events at the University of Missouri hold plenty of lessons for student activists, union militants and labor organizers should also learn from the victory.

Most of the gains made by workers out of the Great Depression – raises, pensions, union contracts, health insurance, etc. – came from militant collective action in the form of the strike. For a strike to be effective though, the workers must shut down production and directly hurt the profits of management. Unfortunately, most unions in the U.S. today have abandoned the militant, production-halting strike in favor of collaborating with management or pursuing legal battles through arbitration. Even when unions go on strike in 2015, their tactics usually involve setting up picket lines without shutting down production or challenging the economic operation of the employer.

As unions abandoned the strike weapon into the 1980s and beyond, employers increasingly gained the upper hand and rolled back hard-fought gains like raises and pensions. Labor scholar Joe Burns describes this in his book, Reviving the Strike (2011), in which he writes, “The abandonment of the strike has led to the erosion of the wage, retirement, and health care gains of the post war period...With the decline of the strike, employers have been able to aggressively attack work rules and the quality of work life.”

Although the organizing and activism of countless students at the University of Missouri made this victory possible, we cannot overstate the effect of the football team's strike threat on the outcome of this campus struggle against racism. These players put themselves, their careers as college athletes, and for many, their scholarships on the line to make a stand against the university administration's tolerance of racism on campus. They threatened to withhold their labor from the upcoming game, forcing the university to consider the large economic cost from ignoring the demands of Black students for change. Supporters flocked to their courageous example, and many of those in power, like the university’s Board of Curators, opted to back the movement's demands out of fear of reprisal. And they won, at least their immediate demand.

Much like a union winning a strike or a contract battle at the workplace, the students at the University of Missouri will continue to face many of the same issues as before. President Wolfe and the chancellor's resignation, along with the small reforms announced by the Board of Curators, will not by itself end racism on campus.

However, the Missouri Tigers' football team's example demonstrated the large impact that student athletes can have in the struggle against oppression on campus, and it serves as a powerful reminder that there is power in a production-halting strike.