This past week, all eyes turned on Columbia, Missouri, as the actions of University of Missouri students, and particularly student athletes, resulted in the resignation of Mizzou’s president, a national debate over the limits of free speech and, to some, a fight for the soul of the American university.
Last weekend, black members of Mizzou’s football team announced that they would not participate in team activities or games until University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stepped down. The move was an act of support for campus activists calling for Wolfe’s resignation, arguing that the administrator hadn’t adequately responded to incidents of racism on campus.
No matter where you fall on the issues, one thing is undeniable: American student athletes, and campus populations more broadly, are wielding their power with more force than they have in a long time.
American higher education, of course, is no stranger to student protests. In last week’s Democratic candidates forum, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow showed a picture of candidate Bernie Sanders taking part in a sit-in to convince the University of Chicago to desegregate its housing. In 1968, students at Columbia University occupied a number of university buildings to protest the university’s ties to the war in Vietnam.
Since the the 1960s, though, student activism has largely gone the way of bell bottoms. Robert McCaughey, a history professor at Barnard who has studied the history of American universities, said that competition among students and high tuition rates discourage activism. He says that this trend has persisted throughout the last century, with the student-led opposition to the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s serving as anomalies.
This decade, though, student social activism has seen a resurgence. Some, as the New York Times wrote in 2012, attribute it the popularity of the Occupy Movement. Occupy didn’t start on campus, but it galvanized many young people and was dedicated to causes that college students flock to: social justice, economic equality, and combatting racism.
McCaughey, though, doesn’t see a significant increase in student power. He points out that the protests at Mizzou had been going on for weeks, but it didn’t garner national attention or have any impact until one group of particularly powerful students—the football team—got involved.
“I think it does not suggest a rise in student power overall, but rather a vulnerability that universities that are playing big-time sports [have],” McCaughey said.
Writing for The Nation, Dave Zirin noted that in a college sports landscape in which athletes are often viewed simply as pawns, players at Mizzou have demonstrated that without their labor, the dollars stop:
So much of the political and social economy of state universities is tied to football, especially in big-money conferences like Southeastern Conference, where Mizzou plays. The multibillion-dollar college football playoff contracts, the multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, and the small fortunes that pour into small towns on game day don’t happen without a group of young men willing to take the field. The system is entirely based on their acceptance of their own powerlessness as the gears of this machine. If they choose to exercise their power, the machine not only stops moving: It becomes dramatically reshaped.
Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled againstNorthwestern University football players who were trying to form a union. Just the same, the past week at Mizzou shows that student athletes can wield significant influence, with or without a regulator’s stamp of approval.