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Dramatic events at the University of Missouri-Columbia have captured the nation’s attention—and for good reason. Issues of racial injustice burst into public display and the school’s football team joined the campus protest. The outcome? The system-wide president and campus chancellor resigned.

Mizzou Student-Athlete Strike

“About the Hyphen”: Reframing Sports Activism at Mizzou—Frank Fear

It’s likely that football—a magnet for public attention—figured prominently in showcasing what was taking place in Columbia. That scenario isn’t new, though; it has played out at other times and at other places. In the late ‘60s “The Black 14,” a group of black football players at University of Wyoming, protested playing against a school governed by an institution with exclusionary practices towards African-Americans. And, in the late ‘80s, the head football coach at the University of Colorado went to the Boulder City Council pleading for public acceptance of his black players—inner-city kids whom he had recruited to attend a school that (at the time) had fewer than 500 African-American students enrolled on campus.

College athletes rarely speak out or organize for social causes—individually or collectively. The picture changes, though, if we focus on the athletes’ identity as student-athletes.

While analysts of the Mizzou scenario have commented about the power unleashed when athletes act for the public good, the record shows that college athletes rarely speak out or organize for social causes—individually or collectively. The picture changes, though, if we focus on the athletes’ identity as student-athletes. Athletes’ “before the hyphen” identity connects their actions with student organizing efforts across the country.

That’s because college students are expressing social leadership that’s broad in scope, deep in meaning, and oriented toward social change—just as students did back in the 1960s. Across the U.S. college students are addressing an impressive list of issues: campus sexual assault at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; campus suicide at UPenn; endowment investing at Stanford; and racial-ethnic insensitivity at Yale, to name a few examples. And there are cross-campus initiatives, such as 350.org (global climate change).

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Mizzou Student-Athlete Strike

Graphic: Andrea Morisette Grazzani

And students don’t just focus on social issues. They also focus on how issues play out on their own campuses. We saw that happen at Mizzou and similarly at Ithaca College, where students also gathered this week calling for the college president to resign.

What’s prompting student action? Some analysts believe it’s a response to the prevailing posture in higher education today—an enterprise that many perceive to act today more like a company and less like a social institution. Ross Douthat put it this way in The New York Times: "The modern university’s primary loyalty … is to the school’s brand, status, and (economic) bottom line." That orientation, if accurate, would lessen higher education’s sensitivity and response to social issues, including the way issues are addressed on college campuses. Some students aren’t willing to accept that outcome—the argument goes—so they organize and take action.

So while it’s noteworthy that athletes stepped forward in Columbia, college students organizing for change isn’t new. At issue is whether the action taken by Mizzou’s football players will stimulate college athletes elsewhere to become more socially active. If so, college sports will have another way of asking that probing question, “Who’s In?”

“We love the game. But at the end of the day, it’s just that: a game. Through this experience we’ve begun to bridge the gap between student and athlete in the phrase Student-Athlete—by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture.” Ian Simon, J’Mon Moore, and Charles Harris, University of Missouri football

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Frank Fear