Mizzou Players Turned a Social Movement into a Business Decision—and Won

Greg CouchNational ColumnistNovember 11, 2015

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 10: Members of the University of Missouri Tigers football team return to practice at Memorial Stadium at Faurot Field on November 10, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. The university looks to get things back to normal after the recent protests on campus that lead to the resignation of the school's President and Chancellor on November 9. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, Mo. The hunger strike was over. Students and alumni were dancing arm in arm, celebrating a victory of activism. The football team had ended its boycott and gone back to work. University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe had resigned.

And football coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades were holding a very awkward press conference.

They were proud to have supported the players during the boycott and said they had done the right thing. Pinkel said he did it "because a young man's life was on the line."

Yes, grad student Jonathan Butler apparently was fading after days of his hunger strike. He had refused to eat until Wolfe was out.

"My support," Pinkel said, "had nothing to do with anyone losing their job."

So, it was about Butler's stance? About the university needing to address racism on campus?

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Oddly, Pinkel and Rhoades seemed to be avoiding any talk about that.

Finally, I asked directly: Didn't the players' boycott make a statement about the racial climate on campus? "I think there might be some of that," Pinkel said.

Some of that?

Hold on a minute.

The narrative we built, through the media and our own perspectives, was that this was 1960s-style social activism. There were two basic points to it: 1) The racial climate on campus is toxic, and 2) The president had to go.

It was about right beating might. That's what we wanted it to be, anyway.

But then there was no evidence that Pinkel and Rhoadescrucial players in the resolutionhad even considered the merits of the cause. There was no evidence that they had been swept up in a social movement and had changed. Why?

Because all around, this was not your father's protest.

The anatomy of a movement looks different now. Maybe Missouri's students defined that over the past few days. Something great happened in Columbia, and that was about students finding their voices, discovering who they are. That's what college is about.

But this wasn't so much of a social movement as a business negotiation. For the students, it was a very successful business negotiation.

The key elements of a social movement were missing here. There was no groundswell of support before Wolfe resigned. Hardly anyone on campus even knew what was happening more than 48 hours before it happened.

That's when 30 or so black members of the football team announced they weren't going to practice or play games until Wolfe was gone.

LBC @MizzouLBC

We are no longer taking it. It's time to fight. #ConcernedStudent1950 #MizzouHungerStrike https://t.co/mnPZBviqJF

Then Pinkel joined them.

Coach Gary Pinkel @GaryPinkel

The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players. #ConcernedStudent1950 GP https://t.co/fMHbPPTTKl

That could have meant millions of dollars in losses to the school. The balance sheet changed the game, and in short order Wolfe went overboard. He wasn't worth the millions. Simple as that.

No one was guilted into anything. No one was smacked in the face with a realization over doing the right thing for humanity.

That's what it was about from the social end. But the students knew better than to appeal on moral ground. Right as they might be, they knew that they couldn't rely on right against might. They needed might, and the football team was might.

Making it about business doesn't make it any less of a victory.

Sophomore Alayah Abdullah, an African-American biological engineering major from St. Louis, stood in the quad watching the celebration.

"I don't feel uncomfortable here," she said. "But I do feel there is a racial tension."

Do you think the football team made this happen?

"Money was talking," she said. "When they talked, everyone came. It shouldn't play a part, but it does."

Kelsey Thompson, a senior who's white and majoring in fisheries and wildlife, agreed that the cause shouldn't have been money. She also wished it had been more about right and wrong.

"It kind of goes to show what's important," she said. "I hate to say it, but it was about hitting them in the pocketbook. It was fueled by money."

She said the football team didn't deserve full credit, but she also said she was surprised at how quickly Wolfe was gone after the players joined in.

This isn't to lessen what happened. Maybe it's even better this way: The Occupy Wall Street people spent all that time protesting all over the country, and how much did they accomplish? At Missouri, it was done all neat and tidy in two days.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Butler had been starving himself and no one noticed. The football team jumped in, and

Goodbye Mr. President.                         

And why does the football team have such power? Tod Palmer of the Kansas City Star, who had a copy of the contract Missouri signed for this Saturday's game against Brigham Young in Kansas City, wrote that if Missouri didn't play the game, it would have been obligated to pay BYU $1 million. Not to mention other auxiliary lost revenue.

One game, a million dollars. This is the explosion of money that is happening in college football, especially since the creation of the College Football Playoff last year.

ESPN has forked over more than $5 billion to show the first 12 years of the College Football Playoff and the big bowls connected to it. According to Palmer, Missouri's football team brought in $17.5 million last year in ticket revenue alone.

What might be the most surprising takeaway from this is that the players wielded so much might. Northwestern players tried to form a union recently, but that fell through.

It's nothing new to point out the importance of money in, well, pretty much anything. But it's a measure of where things are that when the school didn't blink at an appeal made on the basis of conscience, the group that started the protest knew where to turn.

And when it went to the football team, it was a dagger right the university's beating wallet.

"We knew from the start that change would happen," Missouri receiver J'Mon Moore told Bleacher Report during a rally in the quad Monday afternoon. "The future is to let players know all around the world that they need to stand by whatever they believe in."

Moore was walking with teammate Charles Harris, a defensive end in an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt, who said, "Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power."

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 9: University of Missouri-Columbia Athletic Director Mack Rhoades (L) speaks to the media during a news conference on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. University of Missouri
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

With Pinkel and Rhoades, it seemed the negotiation was continuing.

Pinkel said that this was a one-time thing, that he had been coaching for decades and hadn't seen anything like this before. He made it clear that the players had asked him for permission before joining the movement. He thinks there will be no next time.

But there will be. Times are changing. Athletes and other students are learning.

This isn't a cynical message, because the goals of the students weren't any less pure. When the students celebrated on campus, they chanted, "It's our duty to fight for our freedom. It's our duty to love each otherPower, power, power, power, power."

Power. They have learned how to get things done. It isn't about right vs. might anymore.

It's about becoming the might.

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.