The power of college football was used to help enact major change at the University of Missouri, but the real story in Columbia is just beginning to be told.
Here’s the shortest synopsis possible: Following a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler, and support of that strike by a protest group and, eventually, members of the Mizzou Football team, UM System President Tim Wolfe has resigned. Butler says he will eat again, and Mizzou Football is going to play BYU on Saturday. The nearly 36 hours from when the first concerned football players made their stand to the end of their boycott saw national and international media attention descend upon the Columbia campus in a frenzy.
We shouldn’t be happy it happened this way – Butler had affirmed his willingness to die several days before a football game was in any peril, which should be enough of a story to garner significant attention. But football moves the national needle in a way few things can, so suddenly the nation was watching the University closely. It felt like it was overnight, and in many ways, it was.
The intersection of sports and advocacy put Mizzou in the crosshairs of some and the limelight of others. It clearly worked in its goal of bringing greater attention to the Concerned Student 1950 group, and to racial incidents and injustices happening at Mizzou and in Columbia. But now, the football team will go back to practicing. Rightly or not, eventually the national news cycle will zero in on something or someone else. The satellite trucks will leave Mid-Missouri, Tim Wolfe will leave MU, and what will Mid-Missouri and Mizzou be left with?
In the immediate aftermath, we’re left with stories like the ones associate journalism professor Cyndi Frisby posted on her Facebook page, then allowed to be printed in the Columbia Missourian:
“I have lived in Columbia and been at the university for almost 18 years. During this time, I have been called the n-word too many times to count.
My most recent experience was while jogging on Route K in May of 2015 when I was approached by a white man in a white truck with a Confederate flag very visible and proudly displayed.
He leaned out his window (now, keep in mind I run against traffic, so his behavior was a blatant sign that something was about to happen). Not only did he spit at me, he called me the n-word and gave me the finger.
Of course, I responded with, “Oh yea, get out of your car, you coward, and say that to my face.” He then raced off. Typical. After the Zimmerman trial, I wrote about my experiences being called the n-word twice while I was on my jog. And yes, I have had a few faculty call me the n-word and treat me with incredible disrespect. Yes, faculty.”
That’s what Columbia and MU are left with. Horrifying personal experiences like that. Hundreds, maybe thousands, from people in minority groups of all sizes across campus and in town. How will we deal with that… every one of us? The wounds of experiences like that don’t heal overnight, or because a university leader leaves, or because Mizzou is playing football again. Will we come together to hear one another speak, aggrieved and aggressors alike? Will there be an understanding that fighting the horrors of racism is a battle that is more than just replacing a middle-aged white man at the top of the food chain? That it’s a battle people of all colors and creeds and orientations have to work on together? Will we recognize that our first ideas and opinions and ideas and impressions will not always agree, and we have to work through them to find a better way?
Or will we instead shout so loud at each other that one side’s deafening noise falls on the other’s deaf ears? Will we let a lack of understanding of others’ concerns turn into a red battle line? Tim Wolfe said in his resignation speech, “It is my belief we stopped listening to each other. We didn’t respond or react.” Can a scene filled solely with outrage, demands, and generalities – from all sides – possibly accomplish every goal of change and reconciliation?
Evident in those questions is the real story to be told about this singular time in Mizzou’s history. The actions of the football team, to this point, are a footnote to the larger narrative, which is: Will we see minority groups on campus and in Columbia feel greater inclusion? Will all members of the community listen to each other, and respond to concerns and proposals with empathy? That’s the end goal here, right?
You’ll notice at this stage, there are a lot more questions than answers, and that’s OK. Dedicated people, new leadership, and others will likely come together to seek out those answers, and rely on a strong community to live the answers daily. But none of that effort ends because an administrator resigns, or a football team gives us something to cheer for on Saturdays.
The story of how Mizzou – and Columbia – heals its wounds is being written now… and it’s only in Chapter One.