Missouri's football team will play this weekend, and while a victory against BYU might be an uphill climb, some of the Tigers players have already picked up their most significant win of the season. Tim Wolfe, the president of the university system, resigned Monday -- less than 48 hours after African-American players announced they would boycott football activities as part of a protest against Wolfe's handling (many would say mishandling) of racial tensions on campus.
It was a stunning turnaround in a story that had been simmering on campus for weeks. Protests had been underway, and at least one student was on a hunger strike. But the announcement by the football team was a catalyst for a broader discussion of the story -- a masterful public relations move (in the best sense of the term) that made the protests impossible for the national media to ignore. ESPN and other sports outlets were forced to respond, and that rippled through the rest of the new industry.
Wolfe might very well have been forced to resign regardless of what happened with the football team. The Concerned Student 1950 movement was already applying pressure, and Wolfe's response to it has been described as "bumbling."
But the football players' move was a catalyst and gave the university a stark deadline. The last thing anyone in the Missouri administration wanted was to see half a football team take the field and deal with television broadcasters explaining the reasons for three hours. The alternative of canceling the BYU game -- either because some of the team failed to show up, or all of the team failed to show up out of solidarity -- wouldn't have been much better, if any.
That the players were willing to undertake this act of courage -- and don't let anyone tell it wasn't an act of courage -- should be encouraging to us all. You don't have to completely agree with every one of Concerned Student 1950's demands -- though the vast majority of those demands are eminently reasonable -- to see that there is clearly a problem at the University of Missouri. (As, we should be clear, there still are at many campuses across the nation.) In a sports world that is all too often characterized off the field by stories of narcissism and selfishness, a handful of students in Columbia decided to take a stand. An even more ham-handed administration might have pushed for them to be suspended or kicked off the team. Even if they knew that those things wouldn't happen, though, they also had to know that the criticisms from social media and elsewhere would be intense. The players acted anyway.
Over the last couple of decades, sports fans have had to build up a mythology that athletic figures shouldn't be role models, because too often they weren't. Some of the biggest off-field stories in college football over the last few years have included a conference realignment cycle fueled by cash; a monstrous scandal at Penn State; and unproven allegations of sexual assault against a player who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy. We've all found our way to talk ourselves into continuing to love the sport despite these things; perhaps we've become immune to athletes and athletic figures getting away with so much that it didn't take much talking.
This weekend, a group of players from Missouri showed us again that sports can be a force for change, that those who shine on Saturday can do something the rest of the week that can make fans proud instead of chagrined. It doesn't mean there isn't anything wrong with sports, any more than Wolfe's resignation ends the racial problems that now plague the University of Missouri. But in both cases, it's a start.