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.