Concerned Students

You may have read about the football team at the University of Missouri that has refused to play again until the president of the university resigns his post. The story reads, in part:

Several African-American Missouri students have been protesting what they say is systematic racism on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. The latest incident came Oct. 24 when a swastika made of feces was smeared on the wall of a dorm bathroom. . . .Jonathan Butler, is on a hunger strike until [President] Wolfe is removed from his position.

Prior to that, Payton Head, the head of the Missouri Students Association, said several people in a passing truck yelled racial slurs at him while he was walking. And several other groups and individuals have noted racist treatment while on campus.

This is a serious situation indeed and the actions of the students, which have been supported by the rest of the team and the coach, are to be applauded. It is refreshing to see students interested in something other than sports and the upcoming party. But, I must ask, is this the issue to focus attention upon? To be sure, it touches directly many of the students who are black and others who are in sympathy with them. This is clear and not at all a bad thing. But, again, we see action being taken because of an issue that is fiercely personal and touches these athletes directly. What about larger issues?

Political activism is a part of our heritage. We are a nation founded on protest and a willingness to fight for principles. But what are the principles here? Racism is a fact of life and it should not be. That much is clear. But there are huge problems “out there” away from the campus that the students seem to be unaware of despite the fact that they affect those students and athletes directly and which, while seemingly not personal, will make their lives a terrible struggle in coming years. I speak, of course, of things such as global warming, the torture of other human beings by our government, expanding human populations, the continuing buildup of weapons of mass destruction around the world, not to mention the continued party bickering by our elected officials who should be turning their collective attention to those very issues.

Students in the past have occasionally protested such things as the investments of their universities in companies that threaten the planet and this strikes me as very laudable. These protests have been small, however, and have had fair results at places like Harvard University. But the irony here is that the protest at Missouri involves more students and those students are athletes in a sport that is of vital concern to the students themselves and the boosters who will, eventuality, put enough pressure on the president to resign — I predict. Therefore, they will get results, after which things will go back to normal. After all, we can’t have a Saturday afternoon at a NCAA Division I school pass without a rally, a big game and a party after.*

The irony I am reaching for here is that this is a tempest in a teapot compared to the larger issues that the students are simply unaware of or indifferent to. This problem will be quickly resolved while the larger ones continue to be ignored.  Their education should make these students ready to protest issues much larger than racism, issues that affect all of us and all of our children and their children as well. Racism is ugly and should not be tolerated. But so are the larger issues mentioned above which, for the most part, continue to be ignored by college and university students. This fact alone is an indictment of our educational system which should be teaching these students to get worked up over issues that may not affect them immediately and directly today, but are much larger and more threatening to themselves, and the rest of us, in the long run.

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  • Within hours of drafting this post President Wolfe resigned.
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8 thoughts on “Concerned Students

  1. Hugh, thanks for your thoughtful post.

    While concerns over the quality of our education system must, unquestionably, be one of our largest priorities, I wonder if what has happened at Missouri may be an example of a handful of major national issues being fused. Racism, educational woes, the income gap, our misplaced priorities (sports over academics), and worries over young people’s disinterest or lack of engagement in civic life — all of which are time bombs, maybe detonating slowly, but eroding the democratic hopes of Americans — and so maybe the football team isn’t a bad group to make the stand it did.

    African-Americans make up 7 percent of the University of Missouri’s student body, yet they are 69 percent of the football team’s scholarship players. That makes them representative of a lot of things, perhaps: not only their race, but the whole idea of how major college sports operates, which screws with academics and also is a cousin to the income gap. Especially with football, very few Division I college players ever go on to earn much money as professional athletes. Yet their coaches, advertisers, TV networks and the NCAA haul in excessive riches year after year. As you know with some of the studies done, it’s also true that schools that spend more on their major college sports see their overall academic performances fall. If their strike wasn’t directly aimed at educational problems, even if not intentionally it was at least aimed at conditions on a major college campus that are intertwined with education. So that is maybe hopeful for the discussion on the broader education issues.

    One thing: this may be seen, historically perhaps, as a milestone in civil rights — as with some of the 1950s boycotts of white Southern businesses or the South Africa divestiture movement. There’s no better way to get people’s attention than to hit them in their wallet or their heart: by threatening to shut down a Division I college football program, you do both. So it’s interesting to see a group of young, black athletes, collectively, take this stand. Again, whether intentionally or not, they’ve maybe done something on behalf of a lot causes.

    Hugh, I share your concerns over the future of higher ed. I don’t know if the Missouri team’s strike will be a catalyst for meaningful discussion on it. I hope so.

    • One of the interesting questions to come out of this is whether these athletes would have banded together to force the president to resign if the football team had a better record! Much of the protest, it turns out, may have been disgruntled players disappointed by their team’s losing record. Also, it has been pointed out, there is not unanimity on the team about the boycott. It appeared as though there is, but apparently there are groups on the team, as there is on any team that struggles, that are at each others’ throats from time to time.
      Also, on the point of precedent. This could be a dangerous precedent since it is not clear that this was a mindful decision to strike, but seems to have been largely visceral. Anyway, it is certainly worth thinking about. Thanks for the good comment.

  2. Hugh, I agree with your larger point, but do admire the stance on this issue. They used their combined voice and power to make their concerns known. Having been an athlete on many teams, a truism is that teams that work together tend to do better bridging all differences. Society is still learning this, so we need the leaders to come down hard on the overt racists among us. We need them to shine lights on bad behavior. Yet, as Dana notes, I hope this is a catalyst for greater stances that go beyond the campus. Keith

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