This Saturday, amidst the crinkled, colorful leaves of mid-Autumn in Missouri, a middling SEC East program played a what should’ve been a fairly ordinary out-of-conference game against a solid 7–2 team. There was a winner. There was a loser. Stats were kept and scores were tallied. Fans huddled in the crisp air to cheer their student-athletes. Loud they roared.
This tilt between the University of Missouri and BYU, this mere test of skill and will of college-aged youth against youth, shouldered an unrelenting weight this time around — and yet the outcome was rendered merely, pardon the pun, academic. It’s a testament to the power of sports, and a referendum on the power of protest.
The University of Missouri football team made a brave statement when they joined in solidarity with black students at their university railing against on-campus racism. They managed to bend the ear of the people who needed their ears bent the most. And yet, although we should applaud their bravery, we should not applaud the structure that stepped aside in the interest of preserving peace. For until that structure is dismantled, too much of our lives remain colored by the color of our skin.
The vast majority of students at in Columbia, Missouri, and in college towns across the United States, will wake up on Saturday, oblivious to their privilege and their inherent humanity that allows them to live free and cheer in environments that, as sports sociologist Harry Edwards once put it, “look like Ghana on the field and Sweden in the stands.”
This “tradition,” this “pageantry,” is endemic to Big Time College Football and symbolic of the United States as a whole. This pattern of revelry, this way of life, is the elephant in the room that is the weekly Saturday sleight-of-hand. Look around and you will see a predominantly white student body cheering on a noticeably less white band of student-athletes, cheering for the color on the jersey while glazing over the color of their skin.
And, lord, how the turnstiles will ring and the Franklins will be accrued. TV money. Endowments. Booster money. Merchandise. And those who accumulate this war chest will use it to fatten their wallets and strengthen their grip on the power structure in this country. The men behind the curtain will cackle. And these men are usually white men.
But in Columbia, no matter how loud the cheers, the volume pales in comparison to the unified cries of the marginalized — the ones on the field and those who often suffer to the waiting ears of no one.
The Missouri football team’s solidarity managed to hit the right notes, because it found a way to hit the power structure in the only place it matters — the bottom line. The University would have paid BYU $1 million, rather than keep the cool seven figures it would have reinvested in everything but the players between the white lines. It is this financial stranglehold that facilitates Big Time College Football that makes these gargantuan spectacles possible. The privileged ruling class throwing their disposable income and undivided attention at entertainment built upon the backs of unpaid labor often performed by an out-group some attempt to discredit as just “lucky enough to have a scholarship and a chance to attend college.” White Americans can afford not to listen, can turn a blind eye to history and to the machine, all going about their daily lives unperturbed by the struggle bubbling under the surface. White Americans have the luxury of not seeing the black athlete as a part of humanity, until the athlete stands up for theirs.
This past week, hundreds of students camped out in a round-the-clock effort to draw attention. One student made a conscious decision to starve. When the University of Missouri football team banded together with black students, roaring from within to rail against on-campus racism, they made a statement far beyond “we have to do this.” They said, flatly, “we shouldn’t have to do this.”
What we should learn, as the fabric of American society remains unwashed and un-cleansed from the demons that haunt its past, and undivided from the devil that continues to lurk today, is that it shouldn’t take a football team threatening to forfeit a regular-season contest at home to force us to re-evaluate how we systematically deal with hate and inequality.
College Football players, the world’s most affordable marketing department, finally stood up against the “brand” and made a statement. We should commend them. But more than applaud them for their efforts, we should examine ourselves for their efforts being required at all.
It shouldn’t take a band of people, sick and tired of being sick and tired, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, disturbing us from our Saturday splendor. The pigskin, tailgating and frivolous frolicking — our beer-soaked football half-coma miles apart of the indignity of swastikas and smeared human s**t swung in our general direction — is our luxury. It’s a tragic luxury, and one that should not be afforded to only those who are never reminded of tragic it is, or how privileged they are.
President Tim Wolfe stepped down. The University of Missouri will play football again. People will see this and say, “I hope more black student-athletes around the country will protest.” We should see this and say, “I hope more white people listen.”
The cries are loud. The cries are real. It is our responsibility to recognize that they’re bigger than the roars we make at any damn game that could be taken away, should they all continue to fall on deaf ears.