The Global African: The Potential Power of College Athletes

Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African we’ll talk about the Missouri football team joining in with student protesters and the larger issue of activism in sports. We’ll also have a commentary that I’m going to offer on the Paris massacre and the reverberations around the world.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us.

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FLETCHER: On November 9, the University of Missouri Systems’ president, Tim Wolf, and school chancellor R. Bowen Lofton stepped down from their posts after considerable public outcry. Students at Missouri were highly upset due to the university’s handling of various incidents of racism on campus. Jonathan Butler, a graduate student of the university, took part in a hunger strike to call attention to issues facing people of color at the school. In step with Butler, the student-led group Concerned Student 1950 played a large role in organizing, while putting a list of demands forward. These protests received a significant boost when members of the university football team joined in, threatening to stop playing until the removal of the president. The university was set to lose millions of dollars had the players carried out their threat. Facing economic as well as political pressure, the university leadership buckled.

The president’s resignation was an important victory for the students, and also highlighted the power that football players have. So what are the implications of this success for college athletes around the country? That’s what we’re going to be exploring on this segment of The Global African.

We’re joined by Dave Zirin, who is an author, activist, and columnist with The Nation. He is a cohost with former NBA player Etan Thomas of The Collision: Where Sports and Politics Collide, which can be heard on WPFW FM 89.3, Pacifica’s radio affiliate in Washington, D.C.

So, Dave, welcome to The Global African.

DAVE ZIRIN: That’s very kind of you. Thank you so much, Bill. It’s an honor to be here.

FLETCHER: My pleasure.

Dave, I wanted to start with this: the University of Missouri and the actions taken by the football players. There was something that you wrote that really struck me, where you basically said that we have to understand it didn’t start with the football players, but nevertheless the actions of the football players were important or critical. Tell us a little bit about how you saw what unfolded at the university.

ZIRIN: No, absolutely. I mean, the first thing that anyone should understand is that if you ask the football players themselves at Missouri, as I was able to do, they will tell you that the movement was not then, that this is not a sports story, that they were just responding to what they felt like was a mood on campus that they could not ignore, a mood on campus that they felt very connected to, because even though only roughly 7.7 percent of the students at the University of Missouri are of African descent, when you talk about the football team it’s 69 percent. So you have an entirely different kind of power dynamic when you go from the student body as a whole to the football team. And then, of course, as we can get to, the football team also has an economic role on campus that could not be ignored.

But the most important thing is what you just asked, which is: when did this start? And I’ve spent the last couple of weeks speaking to Missouri graduates from the ages of 25 to 55. And if there’s one thing that’s really clear to me, it’s that we are talking about a historic problem at the University of Missouri, where students of color felt like their concerns were ignored, where they felt hostility, where they felt in danger, where they felt like violence on campus perpetrated against their bodies due to the color of their skin was something that could happen on any night, really any weekend night when you inject alcohol into the equation as well.

And the response from the administration historically has been, wow, that’s a lovely sentiment, thank you for your input, we will take that under advisement–so basically just being snowed, basically, for lack of a better term, for decades.

Now, in more recent times, of course, the fact that Ferguson, Missouri, the killing of Michael Brown, is just two hours away from campus played a real role in in this current iteration of what has been a problem on this campus for decades. And many students at Missouri went to Ferguson to be part of the protest. Then they come back to campus, and according to their own words, their own descriptions, it felt like they were entering this kind of fantasy land where Black Lives Matter didn’t exist, where Ferguson didn’t exist, where Michael Brown and Darren Wilson didn’t exist. And that was just intolerable for them.

And so the protests began and sit-ins began, and all sorts of other–let’s call them intersectional issues began to flare up as well, like the pushing of Planned Parenthood off campus and things of that nature, the issue of gender violence on campus and violence against women. So these are the sorts of issues that actually was able to expand their struggle to just feeling like they wanted to be an umbrella for anybody who felt like this university just did not care about them.

And they were putting it off and putting it off. The school president, Tim Wolfe, like all the presidents before him, from my reporting, just smiled and said, thank you, we’ll take that under advisement. But then, when the football team stepped into it, when the football team met with Jonathan Butler, who is the grad student on a hunger strike on campus, and when the football team withdrew their labor from playing college football, which would have cost the university $1 million that next week–more than double President Tim Wolfe’s annual salary–and when the football coach, Gary Pinkel, from his own Twitter account, said that he and the white players on the team and the coaches were all standing with the players, well, at that point Tim Wolfe should have been calling realtors, because no college president at a big-time school, particularly in the Southeastern Conference, is going to survive if the football coach and the team says, either he goes or we go.

FLETCHER: Dave, let me ask you about player activism from a historical standpoint, since I know you look at this. In general I don’t expect to see players mobilizing around much, to be honest. I’m not trying to be funny or sarcastic. However, there are moments when I’ve seen–like in the ’60s and early ’70s, when athletes played a very major role in social movements. And so I was wondering, in terms of what we’ve seen at the University of Missouri, are there many other examples of this? I mean, are there any things to look at that seem to trigger this kind of activism?

ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, one thing that you heard a lot of the members of the media say was that what Missouri was doing was without precedent. And that’s kind of true if you want to tease it out to the most basic issue of refusing to play unless a college president is fired. That is without precedent.

But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a lot of movements, but particularly the black freedom struggle and the antiwar movement, did inspire football teams, college football teams. I wrote an article for The Nation called “The Hidden History of College Football Activism”, and you saw it a lot in the late ’60s and early ’70s. And it was more often than not about racial consciousness, which promoted activism. And usually the demands were less linked to broader campus like we saw at Missouri and were more linked to issues like the hiring of black assistant coaches, getting more respect from whoever the coach was of that team, I mean, so things of that nature, getting black counselors, academic advisers, just trying to create an atmosphere or an environment around the team in the late ’60s or early ’70s where black players didn’t feel like their ceiling was as a player and that their minds would not be respected or the opportunities for employment would not exist once they were done playing in the college football framework. So that tradition is a very real.

And what we even saw with Missouri last month is not that new relative to recent years, because in the last couple of years you have seen this eruption of college football consciousness because the level of exploitation today is so much more than it was in the late ’60s. So issues of college football players at Northwestern talking about organizing a union or the players at the Grambling withholding their labor because of working conditions that they found to be unsafe, I mean, and the consciousness of college football players of seeing themselves as workers, as campus workers, as uncompensated campus workers, is something that really has become much more of a mainstream conversation. And I think all of that needs to be understood if people are going to understand why the players at Missouri did what they did.

FLETCHER: Dave, let me ask you about something you just said. You described the players as “uncompensated campus workers”. I thought it was just a sport, man.

ZIRIN: Well, it’s so interesting, Bill, because currently all our schools, but particularly, ironically, our public colleges, are best described as neoliberal campuses. And they all exist in financial crisis. And the way they try to survive in an era of constant and roiling financial crises and deficits and debts is two ways. One is they load up the students with loans and have outrageous spikes in tuitions and all sorts of other hidden fees. And the other way really is through football.

And, I mean, if you take a step back from it, or if martians landed from outer space, or if people came to this country from anywhere other than the United States, ’cause we’re the only country that does this, it’s absolute lunacy that we depend on the success of college football and loading teenagers with debt as a way to keep our system of higher education afloat.

But as the years have gone on, and as campuses have become more neoliberal, and as the cost of running campuses has become more expensive in our high-tech age, the pressure, the unbelievable pressure on football to be able to drag campuses into the black, so to speak, has become utterly, utterly essential, which is why at all of the big football schools, the football coach is not just the highest-paid person on the campus, but the highest-paid public employee of the state. Like, you cannot name a state with a legitimate football program where what I just said is not the truth. And it’s true in 39 of the 50 states of the United States. And the only ones that it’s not true are states like Vermont and Maine and Hawaii, where there’s just less of a football culture.

So the players have a tremendous–it’s so interesting, Bill, because they’re simultaneously in a position of powerlessness, in that they’re young kids, they’re dependent on these scholarships because a chance, often, to get out of poverty, but they also have a tremendous amount of objective social power, where you have this multibillion-dollar structure, Bill, where our university systems depend on, and it’s all dependent on the compliance of 18- to 22-year-old kids. I mean, it’s stunning, really.

FLETCHER: You also mentioned–and I’m curious how it all ties in here–the efforts at Northwestern University to unionize as an example of some sort of bubbling up or percolating that’s something that’s going on among college athletes. But the efforts at Northwestern were frustrated. And I’m just curious about two things. One is the relationship of what happened in Northwestern to other forms of activism. And I’m particularly interested, because in forming or attempting to form a union, those athletes were attempting to form a mechanism for protection. And I’m actually–to tell you the truth, Dave, I’m worried about these University of Missouri athletes. I’m worried that after everything dies down, that there’s going to be retaliation against them and they might get picked off as individuals and have no organization that will protect them.

ZIRIN: Yeah. This is a very tough contradiction, a very tough nugget, if you will, that’s made all the more difficult by the fact that college is a temporary environment. So one of the lessons, if you do a compare-and-contrast of Northwestern versus Missouri, is that going the traditional union route, as they tried to do at Northwestern–you know, you assemble a case, you get a legal team underwritten by the Steelworkers, you go before the National Labor Relations Board–I mean, what the NCAA has done with their multi-multimillion dollar legal war chest is that they’ve been able to kick the can down the road, and we’re a couple of years in and still the appeals are going and there’s no end in sight. And in the meantime, the players who led that union fight at Northwestern have graduated. And so you don’t have the memory, you don’t have any players in there who have the skin in the game that the original players did. I mean, it’s just incredibly frustrating.

And that story is familiar, I think, to a lot of campus activists in general, where administrators choose to kick the can down the road. Like, I guarantee you, right now at Princeton, for example, as I’m sure you’re aware, there’s that struggle about Woodrow Wilson’s name being on every other building, him being this unrepentant racist, and I guarantee you Princeton, they’re going to–they already announced, actually, as we’re doing this broadcast, that they were going to listen to the students and commission a study. Like, by the time all the studies are done, most of these students are going to be living pretty damn far from Princeton, New Jersey.

Yet look at the Missouri Tigers. They go on strike, and within 36 hours the president’s gone. So there’s a lesson that’s being learned there, too. Like, where really is our power? Is it through traditional union organizing, or is it through more direct action? I’m one of those people whos a big proponent of traditional union organizing, for the reason that you said: I think that all workers need stable institutions of self-defense so they can’t be picked off once the struggle dies down. But in this particular case, the nature of the work is in and of itself so temporary that I wonder if the traditional union models are really going to be able to take root more than the kinds of direct actions that the Missouri players went through.

And you asked about being picked off. I mean, I think that’s always a risk. I think the NFL has proven that they don’t really care what is going on between your ears as far as ideas, as long as you can produce on the field. But if you’re, say, a borderline player and you’re seen to be any sort of rabble-rouser or troublemaker or a union person, that door is going to be closed to you. So it does create a kind of brutal meritocracy, where certainly players are risking their possible professional futures, particularly if they aren’t superstars.

FLETCHER: I just have a couple more questions. One is: what do you think motivated the coach to side with the players?

ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, coach Gary Pinkel, there’s a lot of sort of, like, tea leaf reading about why Gary Pinkel stepped forward as he did. And I think the best thing that I can say to you, Bill, is to tell you some of the theories that are out there, so perhaps people can, I guess, choose the truth that they want or figure out what makes the most sense.

I mean, one–and I haven’t spoken to Gary Pinkel, but I have spoken to other Division I coaches to try to get inside the mindset. And one theory is, like, when you’re a coach, the one thing you do is you preach family among the players. And if your players, particularly a majority of your players, are coming up to you and saying, we can’t play because we just met with this young man who’s hunger striking and he could die and we can’t just go on like it’s not happening, if you as a coach say, well, you’d better get your ass on that field, then you’re basically running against everything you’ve preached all season.

And another theory is that given how dependent college football is on black talent, what would it have meant for Gary Pinkel to have to recruit to Missouri after having betrayed his players, versus what would it mean for him for him being able to recruit and say, hey, look, I have your back–I proved it in practice? So that’s, like, a more cynical read of it, but it’s certainly a read that’s out there.

But the thing that–and then people are also talking about the fact that Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to apply for the NFL draft–he was a star at Missouri, and Gary Pinkel and the team rallied around him. So, clearly there’s a mindset of togetherness and family on that team.

But the thing that probably makes the most sense of all is that–you know, this news got profoundly overshadowed by the killings in Paris, ’cause it was announced just before the first bullets were fired, but Gary Pinkel has announced his resignation because he has lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

FLETCHER: Oh my goodness.

ZIRIN: And it was something that he was diagnosed with over the summer. He had said to people in the know that he was going to leave. He was planning on making the announcement after the season. And I don’t know why he chose to announce now. Maybe because–some people said it was because word was dribbling out. Other people just said that he wanted to be clear with people about where he was and what was going on, and maybe to explain some of his behavior, ’cause I’ll tell you one thing: he was getting a lot of guff from some folks in Black Lives Matter circles because he had made some comments where he said he had no idea what was going on on campus, and so he was shocked when his players came to him with tears in their eyes and said that they couldn’t play and racism, that he was, like, completely blindsided that that was an issue on campus. So there’s a thought that the reason why he talked about the lymphoma was so he could be like, hey, I have had some stuff I’ve been wrestling with, ’cause it does seem pretty serious. Like, he’s saying that he wants to leave just so he can be with his family for the rest of his life, basically.

And so that’s a lot of what’s at play here in terms of Gary Pinkel.

FLETCHER: One last question, Dave. Is there any–did the NFLPA, to your knowledge, say anything about the developments at the university? And is there any relationship, in your mind, at least, between the activism that we see here and the NFLPA and where it may itself be going?

ZIRIN: Well, there simply has to be, first of all. And I have a scheduled interview with the head of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, in the weeks ahead, in about a week and a half, and that’s going to be the number-one thing we talk about,–

FLETCHER: Good.

ZIRIN: –what is the NFLPA’s responsibility.

I did speak to somebody (who will go anonymous) who’s up in the NFLPA who said to me that they’re taking a very, very close look at the relationship between the pro football players union and the rights of college athletes and trying to figure out a way to start taking the lead in some of this organizing, which I think is very necessary. They do have, certainly, the war chest to do it. The question is is: are they in a position to hire the organizers? Because when you’re talking about college football, you’re talking about 120 schools. It’s a heck of a task. But it’s hard to see who is more equipped to do that than this stable, very well funded, very powerful, and very activist-minded union in the NFLPA.

FLETCHER: Indeed. Now, that could be a really exciting development over the next several months.

Dave Zirin, listen, thanks as always. Very much appreciate your joining us on the program.

ZIRIN: No, anytime, Bill. Thanks so much.

FLETCHER: Alright. Keep the faith.

And thank you very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment.

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FLETCHER: I want to begin by expressing my deepest sorrow and condolences to the people in France in the aftermath of the massacre that took place at the hands of operatives of Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. There is no excuse for what happened. There are certainly things that we have to understand that motivates a clerical-fascist organization of that type to carry out such murders.

I also want to express my sadness about what’s happening in the United States in the aftermath of that tragic massacre. You know, I was thinking about this. There was an episode in The Twilight Zone, the original Twilight Zone, by Rod Serling, from 1964. The episode was “I Am the Night–Color Me Black”. And it involves the preparation for the execution of an alleged murderer, someone who had defended himself against a bigot. And he was supposed to be hung at sunrise, except the sun didn’t rise. It remained dark. And as it approached time for him to be executed, it got darker. And when he was executed, it became even darker. And then there was a radio announcement that there was darkness over many different parts of this planet. And the darkness was a metaphor for deep, deep hatred, irrational, insane hatred. And it is that which we’re seeing in the United States.

A friend of mine said to me the other day in talking about the decision by the Congress to block the refugees from Iraq and Syria, she said the United States is going crazy. I said, no, the United States is entering once again a period of craziness, that periodically we go through a period of mass insanity, usually driven by racism and xenophobia, a period where the country turns in on itself, looking for scapegoats. And that’s what we’re seeing right now, the irrationality in the face of thisg issue of refugees, refugees who are coming first to Europe, then to the United States, to seek safety–no different than Jews who were attempting to leave Nazi Germany in the late 1930s–and who, by the way, were denied entrance into country after country after country, including the United States.

You have to ask: didn’t we learn from this? But apparently not, because in a very, very manipulative manner, major candidates for president, particularly on the Republican side, are making use of fear and racial hatred for crass political gain. And it is that which we cannot tolerate. That does not honor the victims in Paris. It is nothing more than charlatanism. And as they once said in Spain, they shall not pass.

Thank you.

End

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