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Missouri Football Player Strike: College Athletes’ Power to Effect Campus Change

An aerial view of a sold-out Faurot Field, courtesy of the University of Missouri.

On Saturday, Nov. 7, more than 30 black members of the University of Missouri football team announced that they would boycott all team activities, including games, unless University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe resigned over his mishandling of racial incidents at the University.

Not only did the boycott bring national attention to racial discord on the campus, it was quickly successful, with Wolfe announcing Monday that he would resign. R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the main campus in Columbia, also said that he would step down at the end of the year.

The outcome, unprecedented in higher education, “showcased the power that athletes have and should use more often to effect change for themselves and their community,” said sport reform expert Ellen Staurowsky, EdD, a professor of sport management in Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, in an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The full implications of their actions will take some time to fully appreciate, but there is a victory for the players in this moment: When facing injustice, they stood up to mobilize the power at their disposal,” Staurowsky said.

“The young black men on the Missouri football team who lent their voices and their metaphorical muscle to a fight for justice were carrying on Martin Luther King’s work, situating the quest for fair treatment as a matter of civil rights,” she said. “Their rights — as athletes, as students, as citizens, as workers — are by necessity rooted in civil rights.”

Staurowsky believes there is a lesson here for college presidents and conference commissioners, athletics directors and administrators: “As the reverberations of the day’s events echoed in college and university administrative offices, there was a recognition of the power of players to shine a light on issues that needed to be addressed, to heed the symptoms of problems that beg for change.”

So will more college athletes be inspired to follow suit?

Staurowsky told the Associated Press today in a story that has been picked up by USA Today and ABC News, that, although college athletes haven’t been very successful at taking on establishments in the past, “There are different issues today, and social media has been a game-changer for players already. They’re a different generation and they’re just beginning to grow into their story, to find where they fit, in a way that may be empowering to them.”

Staurwosky is internationally recognized as an expert on social justice issues in sport which include gender equity and Title IX, pay equity and equal employment opportunity, the exploitation of athletes and the faculty role in reforming college sport.

Last March, she co-founded the College Athletes Rights and Empowerment Faculty Coalition (CARE-FC), a national coalition of faculty concerned with the academic and economic mistreatment of college athletes in the profit sports of football and basketball.

Prior to Wolfe’s resignation, CARE-FC issued a statement in support of the football players, which read, in part, “We stand with and in support of the black players on the University of Missouri football team who acted out of conscience and power of their convictions to use the platform of their positions to amplify attention to the efforts of the Concerned Students 1950 movement, as well as to improve the welfare of all students across campus who have faced adversity, including graduate students.” The full statement is available here.

CARE-FC will host a conference at Drexel from March 24-26, focusing on the rights of college athletes.

Entitled “College Athletes’ Rights & Empowerment: Visioning A New Paradigm of College Sport Conference,” the conference aims to bring leading thinkers to Philadelphia to encourage dialogue that places the rights of college athletes at the center of policy and decision-making, develop frameworks to ensure that those rights are protected and explore ways to empower college athletes to assert their rights.

Speakers include Taylor Branch, Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma, Ed O’Bannon, Sonny Vacarro and The New York Times’ Ben Strauss and Joe Nocera. More information about the conference is available here.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Staurowsky should contact Alex McKechnie at or 215.895.2705.

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