After weeks of protests over what students at the University of Missouri saw as racial insensitivity by the administration, it just took one threat — that the school’s football team might go on strike — to bring down the university system president.
That wasn’t just a demonstration of the leverage that student athletics hold in university finances, though it’s certainly considerable. It also was a vivid illustration of the potential power of black athletes in universities where black students represent a tiny proportion of the student body.
"If you look at black undergraduate men, they could do very little in defense of themselves, given their small numbers,” says Shaun R. Harper, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. "Given the large number of black men on the football team there, they can do something and they did something.”
In 2013, Harper produced a report showing that between 2007 and 2010, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates at the 76 schools in the six big athletic conferences, but 57.1 percent of football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams. At the University of Missouri, black men now make up 65.3 percent of its football team, according to the most recently released data from the NCAA.
The young men of Missouri's football team not only showed how they could amplify the short-term public relations hit facing the school when graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike. They also threatened the school with a financial loss from an unplayed game and a longterm stigma as a place that's hostile to minorities.
“I do not think they knew until this most recent situation just how much collective impact and influence they could have,” Harper says. “Without the black players, you have no football team.”
Racial inequity in education has been an issue for a long time, of course, as has a college athletic industry in which young men make millions of dollars for universities in exchange for — theoretically — a free education. So the question becomes: Why did it take so long for college athletes to make use of the power they hold?
Well, they’ve been trying to use that power on their own behalf, intermittently, for a couple of decades. But until recently, they hadn’t made the leap to action in the interest of a broader group with which they identified.
Ramogi Huma has been trying to spur college athletes to collective action since 2001, when the former UCLA linebacker founded the National College Players Association to advocate for better healthcare, expanded scholarships and more time to spend on education. Over the years, there have been a few protests, like a boycott by football players at Grambling State in Louisiana in 2013 over poor facilities and grueling bus rides. Now, he thinks the energy is starting to pick up.
“The comments are the same in the locker room. There’s a lot of feelings of injustice among the players, and that hasn’t changed,” Huma says. The difference is that "players are now more informed. You’re seeing players speaking out spontaneously.”
Take the University of Arkansas running back who made the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” gesture — a reference to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — after a touchdown last year. Or in March, the University of Oklahoma football team that mounted a silent protest of a racist video made by one of the school’s white students.
Huma hasn’t lost sight, however, of the thing he thinks would give college athletes even greater power: A union. Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board declined to assert jurisdiction in a case at Northwestern University, where football players had taken a vote on whether to join the United Steelworkers, letting stand the lower court’s decision that they weren’t employees. At some point, a union could try again.
If college athletes were deemed employees, they’d enjoy benefits like disability insurance and workers compensation, as well as the power to negotiate contracts with their universities, rather than accepting vague concessions.
“Although I mentioned some of these positive changes that players have won, these are policies that can be rolled back at any minute,” Huma says. “They’re really just promises.”
That additional level of security might also give athletes more power to act on the behalf of other students, as well — although as the Mizzou episode illustrates, they currently have a lot more than they’ve realized in the past.
“There’s a real opportunity here for black male student athletes to step up in other places in support of other black students, and in support of themselves,” Harper says.
Here's a look at a few more charts describing the representation of black men in other athletic conferences.