Something seismic happened at the University of Missouri on Monday.
University system president Tim Wolfe resigned because the football team told him to.
There’s a lot more background to this story, and it’s worthwhile and notable and important, but Wolfe, ostensibly the most powerful man in higher education in that state, no longer has a job because the players on Missouri’s football team decided he should not.
They might be right. The unrest on the Tigers’ campus has been brewing for a while and was fueled recently by three incidents of racist behavior, and some students’ perception of Wolfe’s lackadaisical response to it.
On Oct. 10, protestors from a campus group called Concerned Student 1950 blocked Wolfe’s car during the school’s homecoming parade. On Oct. 21, Concerned Student 1950 released a list of demands that included Wolfe’s resignation. On Nov. 2, a Missouri student named Jonathan Butler embarked on a hunger strike that he vowed not to end until Wolfe resigned.
Very few people around the country – maybe very few in Columbia, Mo., itself – knew any of this was happening.
Then came Saturday, when a group of about 30 black Missouri football players released a picture of themselves along with a statement saying they would not participate in any football-related activities until Wolfe resigned. On Sunday, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel released a photo of most of the members of the team together along with a statement saying the team stood together and there would be no practice or meetings that day. On Monday, Wolfe was out of a job.
Football players weren’t the only ones who were unhappy at Missouri. They weren’t the only ones who were protesting. They were just the only ones who mattered. That is as undeniable as it is sad.
Many of the school’s faculty members walked out Monday morning before Wolfe’s resignation, but after the football team made its play. Notice the timing of that. After the football team picked its side, the faculty knew how this was going to end, and it was easy to pick the winning horse.
This race was over the minute Pinkel put his support behind his players. Siding with players over his alleged boss is not an easy stance for a head football coach at a university, but it’s not a particularly tough one either. A successful head football coach in the SEC has no actual superiors on a collegiate campus. The organizational flow chart might show that he reports to this person, who reports to that person, etc.
Real life has shown us he reports to wins and losses and little else.
College football teams long ago developed an outsized influence on their campuses, and that’s been fine with almost everyone in power on those campuses because it means huge paychecks for the athletics department and university. Many administrators have been more than happy to hand the reins to college football, and on Monday at Missouri, the players realized they were driving.
Wolfe is out and Missouri’s higher education system is looking for a new leader because a bad football team threatened not to play an early November game against BYU in Kansas City, Mo., on the SEC Network. Imagine the force that could be brought to bear if a College Football Playoff team made this decision in January.
The stand at Missouri has shown college football players in a way we have not seen before the power and influence that comes with the catbird’s seat. If other players on other campuses decide to use that power for other reasons, imagine the possibilities.
These players and this team picked a fight worth fighting for and have made a positive difference on a national issue by moving their place in the world toward more tolerance. That doesn’t mean that the next group of players who take up a cause will be as high minded. They might decide they want world peace. They might decide they want to be led from class to class on the backs of unicorns.
If it’s the former, hurray for us all. If it’s the latter, somebody somewhere (OK, somebody in the SEC) is going to start gluing horns on horses’ heads.