When athletes unite, the powerful listen

University of Missouri president resigns
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University of Missouri president resigns 01:55

Story highlights

  • Amy Bass: Univ. of Missouri president resigning shows power of athletes' uniting over racial tensions they say have gone unaddressed
  • She says historically athletes have lent their influence, but activism had declined as sports celebrities avoided controversy

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In the fall of 1940, students at New York University launched a series of protests about a football game. The fight began when administrators told Leonard Bates, a black player, that he could not travel with his team to face the University of Missouri because of segregation laws.

Some 2,000 students marched in support of the "Bates Must Play" campaign, challenging the so-called "gentlemen's agreement" in sports, in which schools did not allow black players to travel with their teams to segregated schools.
Amy Bass
Back then, the NYU administration would end up suspending seven members of the newly formed Council for Student Equality, even as the NAACP issued its support for the student movement. Without question, the student group demonstrated how powerfully the culture of Jim Crow came into conflict with principles of democracy on America's allegedly level playing fields.
    It would be 10 more years before the University of Missouri admitted black students.
    While the NYU protest then did not bring about immediate institutional change, it firmly established a means for collective civil rights action to take place within the world of sports. That kind of action has now arrived on the campus that once denied Leonard Bates a place to play, and it took a football team -- embedded within a wide range of student protest -- to make something happen.
    Missouri football players strike amid racism protest
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    Missouri football players strike amid racism protest 01:38
    Racial tension had been brewing for months at the University of Missouri, with students complaining that incidents of racism had not brought action from the administration. But over the weekend, the complaints gained new authority when the football team got involved, declaring that it stood in alliance with Concerned Student 1950, a group formed to raise awareness about race on the predominantly white campus. Among the group's many demands: the ouster of university President Tim Wolfe.
    Without question, the pressure that the football team brought to bear has had a significant effect. On Saturday, issuing a statement on Twitter through the Legion of Black Collegians, Mizzou athletes declared that they would "no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students' experiences."
    Many wondered how many members of the team were actually part of this boycott. The next day, Coach Gary Pinkel ensured that there would be no doubt as to who was involved. Tweeting a photograph of some 100 members of the team, including coaching assistants, Pinkel stated: "The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players."
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    Their stance was reminiscent of those in the 1960s, when athletes often used their spotlight for politics, perhaps exemplified by the actions of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which threatened a boycott of the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968 by African-Americans, and the constant principled positions of basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
    Yet as sweeping social movements faded in the latter decades of the 20th century, politics became a bit too risky for athletes, a few of whom were discovering extraordinary -- and previously unimaginable -- celebrity and riches. In the age of Michael Jordan, lucrative endorsement deals understandably overshadowed any desire to use the spotlight of sport for social change. Indeed, the newfound economic successes of black athletes -- albeit only a lucky few -- made anyone who dared step out of line seem ungrateful.
    The tide has been turning. After a grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014, members of the St. Louis Rams took to the field in the "hands up, don't shoot" pose.
    "There has to be a change," said Rams tight end Jared Cook, "that starts with the people who are the most influential around the world." Both team and league management, in unprecedented fashion, agreed, supporting the players in the face of an angry local police association.
    And the Rams were not alone: From members of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin to basketball players, including LeBron James, wearing "I can't breathe" T-shirts after the Eric Garner case, increasingly athletes voiced an understanding that they held a privileged and rare position in society to shed light on an emerging movement like #BlackLivesMatter.
    As the politics of racial unrest have grown at the University of Missouri, athletes have accepted the challenge of actively incorporating politics into their sport, although this time -- unlike their predecessors in the 1960s -- with the support and encouragement of their coaches. "We all must come together with leaders from across our campus to tackle these challenging issues and we support our student-athletes right to do so," said a statement from Missouri's athletic department.
    Mizzou football players demand president's resignation
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    Mizzou football players demand president's resignation 01:57
    Recognizing his unique position of power on campus, starting running back Russell Hansbrough tweeted, "Never thought I would be in place or time like this to actually make a difference."
    As Adrian Burgos, a professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of "Playing America's Games: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line," told me, this isn't the first time this team has staked a political position.
    "Given the events of last year when Mizzou football players rallied around their teammate Michael Sam, it is not surprising that they would rally around their fellow students in protesting issues about race and campus climate," says Burgos. "Too often, people lose sight that the issues that impact student life for students of color, such as racism, (also) impact the everyday experience of African-American student athletes on campus."
    We don't know what would have happened at NYU in 1940 if Bates' teammates had sat down until Missouri let him play. But today, with the resignation of Wolfe, it is very clear that in the midst of student walkouts and hunger strikes, it may have taken a football team to ensure that this time in history, there would be no compromise in Missouri.