by Irvin Muchnick
Yesterday, I posted a quick hit on the University of Missouri story. Today, I amplify.
I watch with pride as the African-American football players at the flagship public university of the state where I grew up stand up against racism. But as a long-time observer of the football phenomenon, I caution mightily against a model for change based on slogans about the sport’s supposed power. My friend Matt Chaney has made an unremunerated career out of pointing out that the challenge of football’s hold on the American psyche is that it is seemingly resistant to everything — up to and including gravity itself.
Four years ago, along with many others, I lived the Penn State story. Back then, “we were all Penn State.” Yet in 2015, almost nothing about football culture has changed in University Park, Pennsylvania, except that the Joe Paterno statue was dragged away and put into storage. And the truthers want it back; and like Deng Xiaping, they may some day succeed.
In 1990, I was in my early years as a resident of Berkeley, California — global capital of cartoon political theatre — when the Cal football team, reviving under coach Bruce Snyder, earned an invitation to the Copper Bowl in Arizona. When a referendum in that state rejected a state holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., there was a campaign to get the university to reject the bowl in return for a larger and more meaningful statement from what might be the world’s greatest public university. The campaign failed. It didn’t even come close. All that mattered was that the football program had been turned around.
I was standing on the sidewalks of fraternity row in Berkeley on the afternoon of the Big Game that year against Stanford — where protesters against chancellor Chang-Lin Tien’s decision to accept the Copper Bowl bid, another day at the office, were mocked and spat upon, with zero local media coverage.
The next year I had the pleasure of interviewing Cal’s star running back of the time, Russell White, who had been a uniquely intelligent voice on the team through the Copper Bowl controversy. (One of his teammates said, “Martin Luther King had a dream. I have a dream, too — to play in a bowl game.” Yeah, he really said that.) One thing I realized then was that White would have no chance after he got drafted by the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams. He simply wasn’t enough of an animal..
Obviously, the racial incidents at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and the top university administrators’ responses to them, and a hunger strike that stirred the conscience of the football players there and of decent people throughout the nation, are nothing like the tepid symbolism of a bowl game in a state that had just disrespected the civil rights leader who was probably the greatest American of the 20th century.
Still, what I saw there with my own eyes 25 years ago was the true “power of football” — and it was not the power to change hearts and minds in a positive way.
It was against this background that I asked, in all seriousness, if the current movement at the University of Missouri would have gotten any traction at all if this year’s edition of the Tigers under coach Gary Pinkel were undefeated and on track for a national championship game, instead of a floundering 4-5.
I also ask, again in all seriousness, if Pinkel and his coaching staff were grandstanding in their support of the striking black football players and in their rhetoric about “family.” Pinkel’s statements were not the act of going out on a limb; they were simply confirmation that University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe’s position was untenable. Perhaps, as well, they were a means of distracting from the Tigers’ mediocrity on the field this year. In 2005, a player had died on Pinkel’s watch during one of those “voluntary” practices in the summer heat. Other Mizzou players have gotten passes on their rap sheets, including violence against women, because the trajectory of “the program” trumped values.
So color me skeptical.
Above all, I cringe from the very concept that football can mobilize, rather than co-opt, a social movement. I fear that this Saturday’s off, now on again, Mizzou game against BYU will be just the latest illustration of Gil Scott Heron’s insight: The revolution will not be televised.