Op-Ed: Athletes Have Unique Ability to Force Change on College Campuses

On some of the most racist college campuses in the country, black students are among the most cherished and celebrated.

Not just any black students, but the black athletes who bring fame, bragging rights, and a steady revenue stream to football and basketball programs. At schools like Florida State, the 2014 BCS National Football Champions, black men are nearly 70 percent of the football team. The same is true throughout much of the SEC, which is one of the nation’s premier conferences for college football. It seems that where sports reign supreme, people are willing to bury their racial prejudices beneath Heisman trophies and NFL draft prospects.

Due to their great influence, college athletes are uniquely situated to take a stand and force people to listen about racial issues on their campuses. When colleges’ sports programs suffer because some of their athletes refuse to play, or because they choose to attend schools with better racial climates, then schools in the South and elsewhere will be forced to address race concerns that they have historically ignored.

News broke over the weekend that University of Missouri football players were protesting in response to racial incidents on campus. A group of players refused to play football until the President of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, resigned from his position. Wolfe had continually refused to address racial problems on campus, and the black community had complained about his inaction all semester. Their protests and outcries had been ignored by Wolfe and the rest of the administration. But the involvement of the football team seems to have been a turning point for the university’s response.

Missouri’s athletic program generated $83.7 million dollars in revenue last year. It is simply bad economics, and bad public relations, for members of the school’s most prized team to refuse to play. Their refusal was a move that the University could not ignore, and last week, Tim Wolfe resigned as President of the University of Missouri.

The victory won by Missouri’s football team is one that can be replayed at schools across the country. If athletes decide to engage themselves in campus concerns, they have considerable leverage to force people to listen. Missouri’s football team sent a message that is deeply profound and powerful: you cannot celebrate Black athletes while ignoring the needs of Black students. This type of thinking ushers in a new wave of possibilities for social activism on college campuses.

There are numerous ways for athletes to show solidarity with students of color at their schools. Even if athletes don’t take the bold step of refusing to play, they can take to social media to call attention to ongoing issues. College athletes have the platform at their disposal to generate media attention with every tweet and Instagram post. The news about players’ speaking out on social media would reach outlets that don’t typically cover race issues, like ESPN and other sports media. The surrounding publicity is a major catalyst for change, as is evident with the recent events at the University of Missouri.

Reports of discrimination and intolerance are far from a thing of the past on US college campuses. In 2014, a group of three students tied a noose around the neck of a campus statue of the first black student to attend Ole Miss. Earlier this year in 2015, a University of South Carolina student was suspended for distributing a photo on social media depicting herself writing racial slurs.The University of Alabama faces ongoing allegations of racial discrimination in their fraternities and sororities. And these are just a handful of recent incidents occurring at SEC schools, in addition to the racial concerns occurring at schools like Yale University, University of Oklahoma, Duke University, and many others.

Due to their public influence, college athletes, including the large proportion of black basketball players, are in the best possible position to call attention to these concerns. They can force colleges to put their money where their mouth is. The average minority student simply does not have the leverage to force the type of change that occurred at the University of Missouri this weekend. Their efforts are no less important, but college athletes, joining in with already occurring social movements at their respective schools, lend a much-needed visibility to the effort to eradicate discrimination and intolerance in higher education.

After all, diversity on college campuses must mean more than just recruiting black athletes who benefit the university. To overthrow indifferent administrations, to make diversity a priority and not an option, and to create campus climates that celebrate people of all backgrounds, we need the university’s most public and privileged figures—the athletes—to speak up. 


2 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Athletes Have Unique Ability to Force Change on College Campuses

  1. Fantastic op-ed. I really enjoy the light you bring to the situation regarding racial minorities on college campuses and the role that athletes can play, as I never really looked at it this way before. It is absolutely true that from a university’s perspective, athletes (particularly athletes with exceptional talent) are some of the most prized students on campus receiving both the best benefits and the most attention to their needs, whether it is publicized or not. The value that these athletes bring to universities with big time sports is insurmountable and thus it is incalculably more likely that university officials will listen to their opinions over your everyday student. Not to make any racial generalizations, but football and basketball– the two biggest sports in college athletics– are largely comprised of black student athletes, which poses an ideal situation for black activist students. The opportunity that these minority student athletes have to bring attention to the racial injustices on college campuses is unparalleled, and I so admire University of Missouri football players for recognizing and taking advantage of their superior position. I think that this story can really inspire students across the nation to continue to bring light to racial discrimination on college campuses. While prized athletes undoubtedly have the upper hand, it still offers a sense of hope for all students that change can happen. I would love to see some of USC’s minority football and basketball players do something similar and bring attention to these issues publicly, forcing USC as an institution to address any existing racial injustices on our campus. Because minority students often explain that their voices aren’t heard, what an opportunity for minority student athletes whose voices are always heard. Just as celebrities have the ability to bring public attention to issues of their concern, our campus “celebrity” athletes have a similar opportunity, and I love to see that student athletes are taking advantage of this and speaking up, doing good on college campuses and promoting change.


  2. I think that what the football players at the University of Missouri did is fantastic. They used their power to make a difference, which is great, However, I can’t help but wonder if there will be repercussions. I know that many players have scholarships and contracts that can be taken away for refusing to play etc. The players have the power to make change, but is it fair to rely on them to do so?

    While reading your piece, I was also thinking about the racism that occurs regarding assumptions about student athletes. I often hear on my own campus about African American students who are not athletes, but everyone assumes are, and that the only reason that they got in is because of their sport; that they are not smart and they do not care about school. This type pf racism is much more subtle than some of the things that we have been hearing about on the news lately, but can be very mental damaging to students. These students are smart and have worked very hard, just like everyone else, to get into the school.


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