Jacobs: Athletes learning to use their power

What it was, was football.

In this case the sport was not the subject of an old Andy Griffith comedy routine. Rather, it was the participation of football players in a campus protest that tipped the balance toward change at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

With college athletics already in flux, marked by burgeoning support for players’ rights and well-being, the athletes’ leverage serves to highlight the significance of the moment. “I think this definitely can be a catalyst for future boycotting, standing up for (rights). Anything’s possible now,” says Duke safety Jeremy Cash, a senior All-American. “This has really opened up the door for athletes to stand up for themselves, to have their own voice.”

Protests had burbled for months at Missouri, a campus roiled by racist and anti-Semitic incidents. Students, faculty and outside groups demanded attention to the slurs, and to a climate that spawned them in a state where segregation once held sway. But protesters perceived school administrators were slow to respond. Still, the situation didn’t receive widespread attention, nor did the movement gain great traction, until a platoon of Mizzou football players joined the demonstrators, announcing they would boycott this past weekend’s game unless university system president Tim Wolfe resigned.

Remarkably, the athletes were joined by their coach, Gary Pinkel, and the school’s athletic director. Pleading ignorance of the motivating details, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe acknowledges, “We’d all like to think that if our players would have that kind of passion for something, we’d want to support them.”

Faster than a quirky video goes viral, the assertion of football players’ solidarity with protesters became national news. Almost as quickly, president Wolfe resigned. Later the same day, so did the University of Missouri chancellor. “Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power,” said Charles Harris, a Tiger defensive end.

That message was not lost on athletes in revenue-producing sports, a population historically averse to speaking out even as classmates, pro players, and community leaders take stands on the issues of the day.

Early protester

Witnessing the transformative role played by Missouri football players in Wolfe’s ouster was “very powerful to me,” says Brice Johnson, a senior on the University of North Carolina basketball squad. “If a team here did that, say the Carolina basketball team did something like that, that guy would probably be out like two minutes after. The Carolina basketball program is very powerful.”

There were racist incidents at Duke and N.C. State in recent years, and a marked insensitivity to sexual assault on women attending UNC that led to federal scrutiny. Athletes were generally invisible as others protested and worked toward improvements and better communication. In that aloofness, contemporary players echo ACC forebears who, for nearly a half-century, generally avoided involvement in matters beyond occasionally fighting to oust a coach or engaging in noncontroversial charity work.

The most notable exceptions to that rule occurred during the late 1960s. UNC basketball players Charles Scott and Bill Chamberlain, two of the school’s first African-American athletes, were visibly supportive of demands from the school’s Black Student Movement. To this day, some observers insist Scott’s so-called militancy cost him the 1969 award for ACC Player of the Year. Tar Heel coach Dean Smith denounced the voting as racist – five media members left the All-American off their ballots entirely.

The most committed protester among ACC athletes was probably Claudius (C.B.) Claiborne, the first African-American basketball player at Duke when he enrolled as a freshman in 1965-66. “I think it’s very important for athletes to really be a part of the times and not just go along with whatever the convention is,” says Claiborne, now a marketing professor at Texas Southern.

The reserve guard actively participated in civil disobedience while a Duke undergrad, joining about 60 members of the Afro-American Society in occupying the school’s administration building in February 1969. Much as at Missouri, after a silent vigil and continued calls for reform (including abandoning use of private segregated facilities) failed to move Duke officials, black students escalated their protest efforts. Claiborne, attending school on an academic scholarship, missed a road game at West Virginia by joining protesters; they eventually vacated Allen Building ahead of Durham police wielding billy clubs and tear gas.

“It’s just a question of, what kind of athlete do you see yourself as?” Claiborne asks of players then, and now. “Where do you fit into the society? What’s the difference between just being an athlete or being a black athlete and being a part of the times? Even though you have this role to represent the university and to represent the sport and everything like that, you cannot divorce yourself, I think, from who you are and what is going on in the society.”

Role models

Yet for decades, especially as the prospect of pro riches beckoned, players followed the self-absorbed example of Michael Jordan, basketball’s best player a quarter-century ago. Jordan notably demurred on taking a position in favor of Charlotte’s Harvey Gantt, an African-American candidate in North Carolina, against then U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, lest it hurt sales of his signature “Air Jordan” sneakers. Gantt narrowly lost to Helms, a vocal critic of the civil rights movement and an opponent of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Lately, though, younger athletes have seen LeBron James, arguably this generation’s greatest basketball player, embrace an activist role. After Trayvon Martin, a 16-year-old African-American, was killed by a vigilante in Florida, James and his Miami teammates donned hoodies similar to the supposedly threatening garb worn by the shooting victim. Last December, in a game at Brooklyn, James and other players took the court for warm-ups wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in solidarity with protests of police tactics in the chokehold demise of Eric Garner.

Alarm over deadly incidents involving police and unarmed African-Americans surely resonates with big-time football and basketball players, the majority of whom are black.

Against this backdrop, a movement to secure greater rights for college athletes has grown stronger. Changes in NCAA regulations and more forthcoming policies supported by college administrators make it easier for student-athletes to embrace a full range of privileges along with their responsibilities and obligations.

Meanwhile, pending lawsuits challenge everything from scholarship strictures to transfer rules to use of student-athlete likenesses. Football players at Georgia Tech and elsewhere wore wristbands during a 2013 game with the initials “APU,” All Players United, a gesture urged by an athlete-advocacy group. Last year, Northwestern’s football players attempted to start a union. In this shifting landscape, the notion Missouri football players could cost their school well over $1 million simply by boycotting a game, suggested a disruptive path to influence athletes have previously shunned.

“I think we have to consider the economic factors,” says UNC senior Marcus Paige, a basketball All-American. “If Missouri doesn’t play in the football game, they lose a whole bunch of money. So to be able to use that to our advantage as players, to be able to speak for something we believe is right, is very cool. I’m glad they did that.”

Paige routinely receives well-wishes for recovery from a broken hand and notes strangers wearing replicas of his jersey. He concludes: “To be able to make a statement, or take a stand for what we believe is right, is very important. People will get behind that.”

So perhaps we’ll soon see more student-athletes employing their celebrity status to boost social and political causes they hold dear. If nothing else, that’s sure to further their education.