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On Monday, President Timothy Wolfe of the University of Missouri stepped down following a week of protests by various student body groups, a hunger strike by a graduate student, and the University of Missouri’s football team’s joint vow to boycott any football related activities until Wolfe resigned or was removed from his position — the latest in a long history of athletes using their stations as platforms to promote social reform.
For some of the students at the University of Missouri, the campus had become unbearable. Students reported racial slurs hurled at them on campus. The president of the student body was a victim of racial prejudice; in September, he said that a pick-up truck flying confederate flags drove by him shouting racial slurs. Several student organizations protested that there was not enough being done to ensure the equal treatment of minorities on campus. On Saturday, the University of Missouri’s football team released a statement of solidarity with its fellow classmates: “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,'” the players said. “We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!” A few days later the president stepped down and the discussion began on the power of athletes to sway social movements.
African Americans make up roughly 13% of the population in the United States. The median weekly income for African American men working full time, in 2014, was $652 per week. That is 70% of the median for their white male counterparts. In professional sports, the story is much different. In the National Basketball Association (NBA) 69% of the players are African American. The National Football League (NFL) is nearly 68% African American and the Major League Baseball (MLB) is at 8.3%. African American males are overrepresented in two of the major sports. In fact, they are represented almost three times as much in those two major professional sports than they are in the United States in general. The average salary in the NBA is around $5 millions. The average salary in the MLB is around $3.8 and the NFL averages around $2 million. Taking into account the disparity in the quality of education, limited job opportunities, and challenges posed by institutional racism, professional sports has become a most lucrative and powerful profession for many black males from low-income areas.
The tradition of social activism by African American athletes is extensive and goes as far back as African Americans being integrated in professional sports. Joe Louis held the heavyweight belt in boxing from 1937-1949. During WWII, he served in the military and was outspoken in his criticism on the Nazi regime. Despite some practice of segregation in the military, Louis encouraged African Americans to serve, famously saying “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”
At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two American track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos received the gold and bronze medals. When they climbed the podium, in front of millions of viewers, they bowed their heads and raised black gloved fists into the air during the National Anthem. The audience was shocked. While many were offended, others celebrated their defiant, unapologetic protest of the inequality they and Americans like them were experiencing at home.
In 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. His diagnosis came at a time when he was one of the most beloved players in the NBA. While he had no control over living with the disease, he did courageously use his status to raise awareness about HIV globally and, in particular, within the African American community.
More recently, professional athletes have spoken out against two high profile cases of police officers killing unarmed African American men in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. While neither of the officers involved were indicted, there was a palpable response from many people in and around those communities. On November 30, 2014, five players from the St. Louis Rams came out onto the field from the locker room with their hands raised. It was a tribute to Mike Brown, an 18 year-old, unarmed man fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th, 2014. The gesture was in support of the “Hands up, Don’t shoot” chant heard widely during protests after Brown was killed. While many called for repercussions from both the St.Louis Rams and the NFL, no subsequent action was taken and the players were allowed to practice a form of peaceful protest on a national stage in front of millions of fans.
Some of the the most prolific players in the NBA wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts following the death of Eric Garner, the 43 year-old man who was choked by a New York City police officer. A video recorded at the scene shows Garner unresponsive and handcuffed. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. In an interview with ESPN Lebron James explained why he had decided to wear the t-shirt: “It’s not a Cavs thing,” James said before the game. “It’s a worldly thing.”
“It’s just for us to make a [statement] to understand what we’re going through as a society,” Kobe Bryant echoed James’ sentiments, explaining to ESPN what his motivation was for wearing the t-shirt for game night: “I think it’s us supporting that movement and supporting each other as well as athletes.” Bryant added, “I think the beauty of our country lies in its democracy. I think if we ever lose the courage to be able to speak up for the things that we believe in, I think we really lose the value that our country stands for.”
The President of the University of Missouri stepping down was a poignant moment, not because of what he did, but why. The student body was able to unify and protest against injustice. While the statement of the football team and its vow to boycott all football activities is not the sole reason Wolfe ultimately resigned, it was certainly the most visible factor. It shed light on the power of the athlete, especially the African American athlete, to push community conversations onto the national stage. It is a tradition begun by some of the earliest athletes integrated in professional sports in the United States. For some critics, these athletes are not vocal enough, but when they do speak, people listen. Until many of the causes of social inequality are addressed in a comprehensive way and people from impoverished communities are more equally represented amongst the socially and economically powerful, that enormous responsibility will likely be theirs to bear.
– Mansour Abdur Rahim, Contributing Editor