Is the Resignation of the University of Missouri President a Victory for Racial Justice?

Logan University professor Dr. Jameca Falconer and sports writer Dave Zirin discuss the historical context and possible future of the Black football player strike at the University of Missouri.

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

As of this morning at least one of the demands of the 30 or so striking black football players at the University of Missouri has been achieved. The now-former president of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, resigned this morning, taking, as he said, full responsibility for the racist actions on that campus which had precipitated the strike of these football players. To discuss this and more are our next two guests.

First joining us from St. Louis is Dr. Jameca Falconer. Dr. Falconer is former president of the St. Louis chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists and is the director for counseling and psychological services at Logan University. And also joining us from his home in Maryland is Dave Zirin. Zirin is an author, activist, columnist with the Nation, and co-host with former MBA player Etan Thomas of the Collision, where sports and politics collide, which can be heard on WPFW 89.3FM, Pacifica Radio’s affiliate in Washington, DC. Welcome to you both, and thanks for joining us here at the Real News.

DAVID ZIRIN: Thank you.

JAMECA FALCONER: Thank you. Thank you.

BALL: Dr. Falconer, if we could I’d like to start with you, and have you if you could walk us backwards from this most latest news of Wolfe’s resignation, to explain some of the background leading up to the strike of these players, or the milieu in which all of this is taking place.

FALCONER: Well, I think the background has a lot to do with the climate at the university as opposed to one or two specific incidents. And I believe the undergraduate student body at Mizzou, the racial and ethnic undergraduate body at Mizzou, feels like their concerns, their safety, their feelings and their, their status on the university has not been respected or acknowledged. And I think that’s what it boiled down to. There have been some isolated incidents about, discrimination and racist comments, incidents that had happened outside of university buildings. But I think overall the biggest part was that university administration did not acknowledge or try to repair any of those incidents.

BALL: Dave, if you would, the same or similar question. What is some of the context, some of which you’ve described in your recent piece about this in the Nation? But tell us from your perspective how you approach the context of this recent issue at Missouri.

ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, the starting point is for I think everyone out there to understand that the football players did not do this in a vacuum. That there is a milieu, that there is a context. And Dr. Falconer laid it out really well. I would add that just based on some of the interviews I did and some of the other reporting I’ve seen, clearly the university made a major misstep when after the killing of Michael Brown just two hours away in Ferguson, Missouri, they decided that that was not an issue for Columbia, Missouri. And so you have Michael Brown killed in Ferguson, you have the Black Lives Matter movement sparking nationwide, and the administrators at Missouri said, that’s not our problem.

And for black and brown students, who as Dr. Falconer said already felt a very general sense of unease about their place on campus, if not unease for their very safety on campus, that was just a bridge too far. And they felt like they had to say something, they felt like they had to do something. And every time they said or did anything, school president Tim [Wolfe] seemed to say and do less and less. I mean, the guy has no education background, no higher ed background. He comes from the billionaire tech company world. And I think that was exposed in dramatic fashion. I mean, the man was like a raincoat with holes, because once it started to rain it showed he was completely incapable for his job.

BALL: You know, Dr. Falconer, please respond or expand on any of what you’ve just heard from Dave Zirin, if you like. But I was struck by–well, one, I wanted to ask you both where you think this is headed next, given that now the number one demand or the most popular demand, that the president resign has taken place. But Dr. Falconer, I was also struck specifically by the seventh point in their, their list of demands, which says that they want an increase in funding and resources for the University of Missouri counseling center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals, particularly those of color, boosting mental health reach and programming across campus. Could you talk a little bit about, from your perspective and expertise, obviously, why this particular demand would be important and why obviously that these students would have called for it?

FALCONER: Well, I think that’s a very significant piece of the puzzle. I am a Mizzou alum. I trained and got my doctorate degree from Mizzou and trained in that very counseling center. And I can attest to the fact that there is a very huge shortage of racial and ethnic minorities, or people that look like me, that can train me and guide me on working with people that look like me.

So I think that’s the piece of the puzzle. So now we have this group of students on this campus that feel unsafe, that feel unheard, that feel victimized. And they don’t have anywhere on campus that they can go to and talk to someone that looks like them who will truly understand their issues. That’s truly the biggest piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately it’s been like that for many years. I trained in that center, and that was the case at that time. And that was in the late ’90s. So unfortunately that hasn’t changed, but we hope that that piece of the puzzle will change as a result of this issue.

BALL: I mean, just very quickly, what would you say to people who would respond or look at your point there and say, why–or how is it necessary, or why would it be necessary, for every individual student to have access to someone that looks like him or her taking care of their mental health issues? Why wouldn’t it be sufficient for a well-trained, you know, quality professional psychologist or therapist or counselor, to deal with people of different populations?

FALCONER: Well, I think we can use the case of Michael Brown as a perfect example. We met with–we meaning the Association of Black Psychologists in St. Louis, met with some of the students from Mizzou. They came up to help us with some of our efforts at that time. And I’m quite sure that most of them traveling to Ferguson to talk to us and to, to talk to us, discuss things, was about the mentorship and maybe the mental health needs that they had that could not be addressed on campus. So it’s very difficult to go and sit across from someone that doesn’t look like you and to trust that they will share some of the same values and beliefs, specifically as it relates to the Michael Brown issue.

And that’s just one example I could use. It’s very hard to talk about racism, poverty, discrimination, sexism in the workplace, and sit across someone who doesn’t share your same values. It’s a trust issue.

BALL: You know, Dave, when I was reading your piece in the Nation I have to admit I was absolutely struck by the staggering differential in percentage of students at the–the racial disparity, rather, of the population at that university. Especially compared with the percentage of scholarship athletes at that university. Could you talk a little bit about that context in particular that you cover in your piece?

ZIRIN: Absolutely. And specifically in football. And this is not a Missouri issue, and it’s not even a Southeastern Conference issue. This is at every state football powerhouse in the United States, you do see similar statistics to this. The African-American student body, the black student body at Missouri University, is listed at 7 percent. And on the football team it’s 69 percent. And so you have this really interesting situation where many black students feel a sense of powerlessness, literally just because of their numbers. They feel like we’re 7 percent of the school, therefore our concerns just go unheard, and we’re just seeing it as marginalized. And yet you have this football team that’s utterly dependent on black labor. A football team that’s at the center of the social, the psychological, and even the economic life, not only of the campus but of Columbia, Missouri itself.

So this is one of the things I’m trying to push out with the last couple of pieces, is that even people who are sympathetic to the plight of scholarship, revenue-producing athletes, often talk about them in the context of their powerlessness and not the power that they do potentially have to affect change on a campus, because so much is riding on their desire and their willingness to strap on the pads, put on the helmet, and basically go to work.

BALL: You know, both of you have mentioned the impact or the relationship that Ferguson and Black Lives Matter have had on this particular incident. Dave, I’m also wondering if you could quickly put in context the, this act of solidarity among the players in the context of athletes taking political stances. If you could just say a quick word or two about that, because I think for some this may seem like a bit of an anomaly, particularly the strong stance that they’ve taken.

ZIRIN: Oh, sure. No, no, this is something we’ve seen since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is this ricocheting between struggles in the streets to struggles on the athletic field. Whether it’s been the statements of people like Serena Williams, whether it’s been NBA players like LeBron James and Derrick Rose wearing I Can’t Breathe shirts out on the court, whether it was the players on the St. Louis Rams saying that they stood against the police and in solidarity with the protesters. I mean, you’ve seen this time and again, and those are just only a few examples.

And I think this is part of a long history in this country, because sports has always depended on the labor of largely disenfranchised, largely working class and working poor black players, that it’s this unique space in U.S. society where black players also have a microphone and have a voice. Now we’ve seen often over the decades that that voice has not been used, or not used in full since the late ’60s and early ’70s. But I really do believe that we’ve entered a new era partly spurred by social media, partly spurred by the level of crisis with the criminal justice system and partly spurred just by the fact that there is a movement where athletes are using their voice and are trying to amplify what’s being said in the streets.

BALL: Dr. Falconer, if you would finally, tell us if you would what you think of the next steps going forward, or what you think the impact of this broader Black Lives Matter or Hands Up United movement would have on this. Again, with Tim Wolfe having stepped down–when I look at this list of demands, I mean, they read like things we would have read, you know, 50, 60 years ago coming out of the civil rights struggle in terms of having a more diverse faculty, and as I said a moment ago, increasing funding for a more diverse counseling service. What do you see coming next from these students and the surrounding community as it relates again to these other movements that are occurring in this country?

FALCONER: I think specifically for Mizzou what this means now that he has stepped down is that the university will have to do something. They will have to take action revolving some of these issues that have been brought up. The world is watching. I am so happy that things have taken the turn that they have taken in the past few days. I’m so happy that the students have stood up for things they believe in. [As an] alumni of Mizzou, we all are in solidarity with the students. Black faculty, black alumni, and the students on campus. We all have been banding together to make sure that this has happened. So now the next step is that the university will have to act on it.

And again, as you said earlier, these are things that should have happened many, many years ago. So the world is watching, and we hope that they do the right thing.

BALL: Dave Zirin, just again finally very quickly if you would say a word, from your perspective, what you see happening going forward. I mean, are the players going to continue to strike? And if so, what would the financial impact be on the university? I mean, could the university even withstand such a financial hit, should the players not play? I mean, football is a major cash cow, as you said earlier, for all these universities that have major programs, like University of Missouri. Do you see this strike going further, or extending beyond just the, its current state?

ZIRIN: Yeah, I don’t think the strike is going to continue, although we haven’t heard explicit word about that. Because they really only came forward with one demand, and that was about Wolfe stepping down, which is a little different from the concerned student 1950 set of demands. And–.

BALL: But they put out eight–they have a list of eight demands, some of which I was reading from in terms of what–. But I just noted that the strike was the most popular demand.

ZIRIN: Right. Right, right, right. No, that’s right. So what we’re going to see if that, if it takes root since Wolfe stepped down, if it’s going to play itself out even more going forward. I will say that you asked about the concrete numbers. Like, if the football players don’t play this weekend against BYU, the school has to write a $1 million check, and hand it over to, I believe to BYU but maybe partially to the conference as well. So it’s a loss of $1 million a week from a school that’s cash-strapped as it is. So I mean, it’s pretty much whatever the football players want. And since the coach Gary Pinkel, who by the way makes over $4 million a year, has already thrown in his lot with them there really is very little that the university is going to be able to do at this point if the football players choose to stay out. There’s no indication yet that that’s going to happen now that Wolfe is going to resign.

And if I could just say really quickly, we’re talking about the things that we’re happy about, I’m very happy that Jonathan Butler is going to get to live. I mean, this is a graduate student, has been on a hunger strike since October 23. He’s been living on multivitamins and water. If you’ve read descriptions of the pain that he’s been in, the physical pain, it really is quite harrowing. And the football players really did put that front and center in their demands. Like several of them said, until Jonathan Butler eats, we’re not going to play. And so the hope is that he’s now going to be able to get his strength back physically and be able to take his space as part of the movement again.

BALL: Well, Dave Zirin, Dr. Jameca Falconer, thank you both for joining us here at the Real News Network.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

FALCONER: Thank you.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. And as always I’m Jared Ball from Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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