Student athletes give activism a big lift on Missouri’s campus

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The resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe was a major victory, not just for Mizzou’s black student activists, but for all black student activists and young people in general who are eager to create positive change concerning race relations.

Using the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 (a reference to the year the first black student was admitted to the university), the Legion of Black Collegians laid out eight demands for university administrators about racial matters on campus. The demands, though ambitious, are practical and seemingly achievable, such as increasing the black faculty population by 10 percent by the 2017-2018 school year and creating a 10-year plan by May 1, 2016 to .

The second demand reads:

We demand the immediate removal of Tim Wolfe as UM system president. After his removal, a new amendment to the UM system policies must be established to have all future UM system president and Chancellor positions be selected by a collective of students, staff, and faculty of diverse backgrounds.

Tim Wolfe’s resignation fulfills the first part of that demand, and it is a clear victory for the activists. Mizzou graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his one-man hunger strike when he got news of Wolfe’s resignation. A week ago, Butler vowed to not eat until Wolfe stepped down. This was after months of racially charged incidents on campus, including a swastika made of human feces being smeared on a dorm wall on October 24.

Wolfe, who has had numerous clashes with black protesters, had up until today unequivocally vowed not to step down. But over the weekend, another crop of students joined the protest, and they might be the ones who ultimately convinced university administrators to take action.

The black players on Mizzou’s football team stated that they would not participate in practices or play in games until Tim Wolfe was no longer president. That was a bold statement that carried financial weight. The University of Missouri is a Division I school, and football is big business.

If the boycott had continued and the university was forced to cancel Saturday’s home game against Brigham Young University, the school would have had to pay $1 million to BYU, per the game contract. Just two wins away from being bowl eligible (another big money maker for universities), the financial implications of a prolonged football team boycott could have been disastrous.

The activist student athletes had the backing of their coaches and the entire athletic department and were joining an already organized and vocal campus movement. It’s rare to see an organized and well-supported show of force among students athletes at Division I schools.

The NCAA pulled in nearly a billion dollars in revenue in 2014. Student athletes generate that hefty sum without being directly paid from it. There are scholarships, but the NCAA has many rules that forbid college students from being compensated for their athletic work. If more student athletes used that monetary leverage to influence school policies, that could have wide-ranging and permanent impacts on how college administrations respond to student activism.

Attempting to address complex and layered issues like race relations can seem daunting and unachievable, but the black student activists at the University of Missouri have provided a playbook for how to make progress. Through protests, boycotts, hunger strikes, social media conversations, clear and smart demands and most of all, student unity, Mizzou students are showing the world that millennials do care, and they are poised to be the change they wish to see in the world.

As accolades pour in for the student activists, the focus is now on how to move forward from this important initial victory.

Located just two hours from Ferguson, the University of Missouri’s next steps are critical in determining how the school’s black population (currently 8 percent of 35,000 students) will continue to make progress with race relations on campus.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope and connect with her on Facebook.