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The Voice They Found Was Never Lost

College athletes spurring social change is nothing new

Missouri student protesters address a crowd on Nov. 9. JEFF ROBERSON / AP PHOTOS

The football program’s black athletes felt it was time to take a stand. They were upset about discriminatory treatment and threatened to boycott. Their voices were joined by others on campus, amplifying the protest. Soon, sweeping changes came to the university, improving staff diversity and promoting inclusive values.

Sounds like the story that made national headlines in November at the University of Missouri, Columbia, right? The boycott threatened by 30 of the football team’s black players to support student-body protests over the school’s sluggish response to racially charged incidents on campus? The stand in which student-athletes, in some minds, discovered the power of their voice?

Actually, it was from 1969, when the black members of the University of Washington’s football program threatened a boycott to protest the treatment of one of their black teammates. But there are countless examples of college athletes making their voices heard, protesting social injustices and making a difference. For decades, college athletes have played an important role in forcing social change.

You saw it when Lew Alcindor of the University of California, Los Angeles, boycotted the 1968 Olympics. That same year, recent San Diego State University graduates Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the Olympic medal podium in black socks with gloved fists held high to protest unequal treatment of African-Americans in the United States – an idea inspired by one of their college professors. A few years later, another Bruin, Bill Walton, was arrested while protesting the Vietnam War. Their actions came in a period of turmoil, when issues of women’s rights, civil rights, racial equality and the Vietnam War were hitting simultaneously. Social issues are once again erupting – and we’re again seeing college athletes at the forefront of demanding change.

We see it in issues of gay rights, where Athlete Ally – founded by a former college wrestler – now has 52 chapters on NCAA member campuses to promote inclusive sports communities. That list includes Duke University, which assisted Athlete Ally in harnessing the voice of college athletes through a pilot program with national ambitions that teaches them how they can advocate for gay rights.

We also see it in issues of sexual violence, where the It’s On Us campaign has provided a chorus from college athletes who have vowed to help prevent violent incidents and have spoken out against sexual violence at campus events. Student-athletes have even spoken up about human trafficking, with 10 athletics departments recently joining with the organization Shut Out Trafficking to lead 20,000 students in taking a stand.

Now we’re seeing it at Missouri to protest racial injustice after student-led protests over recent incidents, which included discriminatory comments from other students and a Nazi swastika painted in feces on a wall, produced a stagnant response from the school. The student-athletes threatened their boycott. Athletics Director Mack Rhoades and head coach Gary Pinkel backed up the players. And just 48 hours later, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and system President Tim Wolfe resigned.

Seeing student-athletes take a stand for what they believe is right was a proud moment, though not the first. It joins the brave stands like the one made at Washington 46 years ago.

Then, the issue of racial equality was in front of many minds when the players protested the punishment of a player made to run the steps of Husky Stadium alone at night after fumbling in a game. The same punishment wasn’t handed to a white player who fumbled, and the incident followed a previous discrimination complaint against coach Jim Owens. Four of the players –­ Ralph Bayard, Gregg Alex, Harvy Blanks and Lamar Mills – refused to call off their threat and swear loyalty to Owens. They were suspended.

After those suspensions, most of the remaining black players on the Huskies’ team joined the boycott when a crowd of 200 protesters – both black and white – gathered and blocked the Huskies’ bus on its way to the airport for their next game.

What followed, according to a recent account in the Seattle Times: The school president established a commission to investigate racism charges in the athletics department; Owens added

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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