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The Missouri football strike was about a lot of things, but mostly about respect

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Football players and coaches gave their support to a campus movement in favor of changing school leadership. A Columbia resident explains.

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University of Missouri

Ranked among the Top 10 College Towns, the University of Missouri plays a major role in Columbia’s economy and culture and is a big reason why the city has repeated appearances on the Top 100 Best Places to Live. Well-manicured parks, good cuisine, shopping choices and nightspots help give Columbia a distinct vibe and sophistication, and luxuries include a strong healthcare system, thriving downtown and an award-winning MKT Trail for hiking and biking.

Columbia prides itself on being livable. Rare is a list of best college cities, medium-sized cities or Midwestern cities that doesn't include Como near the top. It has nearly doubled in size since I moved here in the fall of 1997.

When the football team reached No. 1 in the BCS standings in 2007, it sparked an applications surge, one that has been more or less sustained ever since. In the fall of 2014, the school boasted its largest student body, freshman class, and yes, minority enrollment. The only things going up as quickly as new student housing in Columbia are retirement communities.

So you'll forgive some people for getting a little confused at the thought of Columbia becoming the sudden epicenter of racial tension in the United States. It feels like quite the contradiction. Picture Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington walking around the quad and hugging strangers; now picture the student body president walking down the street being yelled at and called a nigger. Doesn't really make sense.

But maybe that makes perfect sense. Maybe it takes a certain level of tolerance for intolerant people to so publicly lose their self-control. Maybe it takes a university that elected a black, gay student body president, then elected him Homecoming king, to bring out the hatred.

And maybe it takes a place with high standards to house protest like this. Maybe it takes a place worth changing for people to fight for change.

That's a lot of maybes. We're all asking questions and making guesses right now. The only certainty is that Columbia has the eyes of the country at the moment.

***

What we think of as 1950s-style oppression is not apparent. Former Mizzou tight end and current local high school football coach A.J. Ofodile said as much this weekend.

Through this whole process I haven't heard one example of any oppressive action or policy that is systemic in nature. I've seen tons of examples of individual bigotry and claims that those incidents weren't handled appropriately but at this point I have to seriously doubt that people fully understand what systemic oppression really is.

Black students are not being denied enrollment. They're not being kept in segregated housing. There are not governors or police officers preventing them from attending class.

But the bar is justifiably a lot higher in 2015, and while "oppression" by some definitions might not be involved, respect is. The offenses here are more anecdotal than systemic, but that's enough, isn't it? In 2015, when your student body president is being harassed, and when you cannot post publicly about that on social media without getting bullied, it isn't too much to hope that your university leaders will publicly lend you support.

And if you do not receive that support, it probably makes sense that you would want said leadership removed.

***

There have always been two Missouri campuses, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that isn't unique for college towns. There has always been unofficial segregation, and most of it comes by choice. You gravitate toward that with which you are familiar, even (or especially) when in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that means people from your high school. Maybe that means people of your color.

I was lucky. Mizzou attracts a pretty diverse population, in part because of the journalism school. My dorm floor was made up almost equally of students from Kansas City, St. Louis, rural Missouri and Chicago. I came from a small Oklahoma town that had more Native Americans than African Americans, but I was on a floor with quite a few black students. One became my roommate. Others became good friends.

You can find common ground with just about anyone if you try, and we didn't have to try very hard. But no matter how similar we were in our tastes and preferences -- sports, music, TV, girls, whatever -- I was randomly exposed to our differences. One friend had regular meetings with an advisor as part of aid he was receiving to be able to attend the school. Another would act differently when we would encounter a black acquaintance on campus.

Little things opened a window into a different world. Things like attending the NPHC Homecoming step show, where you're suddenly in the vast minority and having an incredible time.

It didn't take much empathy to realize the experience of any member of any minority population is simply different. It could still be good or mostly good, but it was going to be different, and there was no way around that. And while every black student gets exposed to a white world while attending college, not every white student gets the same experience.

Columbia and Mizzou were never without tension. You could see fault lines, a misplaced accusation of vandalismcotton balls at the Black Culture Center"Them crackers shaking."

***

So why now? To my eyes, it's been a perfect storm.

First, there was the election of a smart, outspoken young man named Payton Head as student body president. Head wrote about multiple demeaning incidents on Facebook in September, signing his post "Your Nigger/Faggot Missouri Students Association President." When others began sharing similar stories, and when newer incidents came to light, it became an official university topic. And when protesters blocked university president Tim Wolfe's car at the Homecoming parade in mid-October, his lack of response lit a fire.

General campus morale is another part. Wolfe, a Mizzou and Harvard grad who had a three-decade career in information technology, replaced former Sprint CEO Gary Forsee. Business acumen is an important thing for a university; so is actual campus experience.

And when chancellor Brady Deaton announced his retirement in late 2013, he was replaced by former Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin. The bow-tied Loftin is a natural politician. He has also lost the faith of quite a few faculty members with his appeasement of actual politicians. (The English Department recently rendered a 26-0 vote of no confidence in Loftin.) A behind-the-scenes battle between Wolfe and Loftin had become public knowledge.

In recent months, Missouri has revoked admitting privileges for a doctor associated with Planned Parenthood. The med school dean was pushed out after less than a year on the job (a large percentage of med school faculty believes Loftin was beyond instrumental). And one morning in August, graduate students woke up to find they were no longer going to be provided health insurance.

A combination of poor leadership and minimal pay increases has led to a depressed environment. Insiders and outsiders have noted morale on campus feels like it's at an all-time low.

Anger built. Incidents came to light. Those with minority status -- be it race, gender, or income -- felt the brunt.

Concerned Student 1950 began to thrive. Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike last Monday in protest of Wolfe's leadership and blacks' treatment at Mizzou.

"(S)tudents are not able to achieve their full academic potential because of the inequalities and obstacles they face," he said. "In each of these scenarios, Mr. Wolfe had ample opportunity to create policies and reform that could shift the culture of Mizzou in a positive direction but in each scenario he failed to do so."

On Monday morning, after a brief meeting with curators, Wolfe announced his resignation.

***

Wolfe is a friend of a friend. I've never met him, but two good friends (one of them black) have and were indirectly involved in his hire. He is by their accounts a decent man, not a racist.

But when you are a well-paid figurehead, your responses matter more than your intentions. Wolfe's responses to ongoing protests and incidents were aloof. He later admitted as much.

The Concerned Student 1950 demands (pdf) include some petty, demeaning items, none more so than "Tim Wolfe must acknowledge his white male privilege," which serves as a reminder of the passion (and, yes, youth) involved. But it also includes plenty of reasonable suggestions, many of which have been taken into account by Wolfe as part of a recently announced strategic plan.

The intersection between passion and strategy is a tricky one. While positive changes will almost certainly emerge, Wolfe will not be in charge to see it through. In theory, neither might Loftin.

And one of the largest remaining questions is of Butler's health amid his hunger strike. [That's since been answered, as Butler and players both announced their strikes are over.]

That's where the Missouri football team comes in. An unnamed player allegedly met with members of Concerned Student 1950 last Wednesday, the day before the Tigers hosted Mississippi State on national television. Three days later, a large portion of the football team announced it would boycott and refuse to play until Butler eats. On Sunday, head coach Gary Pinkel released a tweet and a statement.

The tweet, by now retweeted nearly 14,000 times:

The statement:

Today, Sunday, there will be no football practice or formal team activities. Our focus right now is on the health of Jonathan Butler, the concerns of our student-athletes and working with our community to address this serious issue. After meeting with the team this morning, it is clear they do not plan to return to practice until Jonathan resumes eating. We are continuing to have department, campus, and student meetings as we work through this issue and will provide further comment tomorrow afternoon.

This was not a unanimous decision. Nothing ever is. You could find former players dissenting with the choice. Media quickly unearthed current players anonymously dissenting.

But as with Wolfe's choices in October, the public face that you present is the most important thing. Missouri announced it would not play another football game until Butler eats. That is a powerful statement. While we can note that it probably shouldn't have had the impact that it likely did (sports having too much of a priority in our lives and whatnot), it was a statement that would almost certainly lead to Butler eating sooner than later.

It was also a statement that has unleashed the worst side of humanity.

***

Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. And they have said over and over again in ways that we see with our own eyes. In fact, not too long ago, a man down in Mississippi said that God was a charter member of the White Citizens Council. And so God being the charter member means that everybody who's in that has a kind of divinity, a kind of superiority. And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man's inhumanity to man.

The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I'm in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., "The Drum Major Instinct"

A college campus is one of the perfect environments for learning about yourself and others. It doesn't have to be. You will find like-minded individuals, and if you choose, you can convince yourself that you and your kind are better than others. You can use selective anecdotes to back your thinking up. We all do this to some degree -- black and white is always easier than gray.

Look at photos from the 1960s, from the days of James Meredith and Vivian Malone and James A. Hood. It's easy to note the stoicism in the faces of those first black students looking for admission in Southern white schools. My eyes draw toward the other faces. The angry onesThe mocking ones. The drum majors. Some of the students in these photos are still alive, in their mid-70s. Some either died or will die with no regrets.

I bet some of them have, over the last five decades, come to realize their mistakes. Some of them have children and grandchildren who try to rationalize these decisions as products of the time. They weren't truly bad people, you see. They were just misguided. This is what we tell ourselves, hoping we're right and never receiving confirmation. (I include myself in this group.)

In these pictures are the people immortalized as those on the wrong side of history.

There are fewer faces these days, replaced by tiny Facebook photos and Twitter eggs. Maybe these profile photos feature pets or families of a great life people want you to know they have. But the hate is the same, as is the trajectory of history.

Fifty years after Meredith and company attempted to break down literal barriers, there is still a battle. The battle today is not for rights, but something as important: Dignity. There is no question that at Missouri and just about every other campus in this country, the minority experience still features more obstacles, required adaptation and ridicule. That's reason enough to fight.

Columbia, about a two-hour drive from Ferguson, is in the spotlight, but it is not alone. You can question the demands. You can question players' motives. If you're feeling cynical or closed-minded, you can question whether the team would have gotten involved had it been 9-0 instead of 4-5. (My retort: Wouldn't the team have even more leverage at 9-0?)

In the wrong-side-of-history responses -- since Saturday, since September, since Mike Brown, since they were born -- these students have received all the encouragement they need to realize they are fighting the right fight.

Bill Connelly and Steven Godfrey podcast on where Mizzou goes from here

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