Real Power and the Cost of Activism

Thabiti Lewis

Author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press)


University of Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s announcement that he will retire at the end of this season because of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma help me better understand his support of the players and ignited my greatest fear: there will be repercussions for the Missouri 32. While grassroots organizing and the infection of Black Lives Matter certainly played a significant role in getting Tim Wolfe to resign, the threat of 32 black football players forced its immediate manifestation—the courageous young athletes of the University of Missouri football team are all worthy of an ESPY Award for Courage. In the history of collegiate sport athletes have never acted so swiftly—it was powerful. But what is power?

As I argue in Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America, collegiate sport is big business and players (New School Ballers) have enormous untapped power that can force change. And, as sports historian David Zirin has wonderfully pointed out, there is a history dating back to the 1960s of players striking and threatening to strike in the name of diversity demands. But there is also a history of those in power changing the rules, offering token progress, and exacting revenge against those that dare rise up. All of these things scare me as I ponder what is happening and will happen next at the University of Missouri. Soon the real games will begin.

History has also shown us that powerful universities, coaches, and even the NCAA will not go down without a fight. For example, the NCAA lost the Ed O’Bannon (pay players for use of their image) case but they went back to court and got a reversal. And, while black players (who comprise 70% in conferences like the SEC) have historically protested for more black coaches, there are few black head coaches or offensive and defensive coordinators. Sure there are many position coaches, but these positions do not lead to head coach job. It is likely interim University of Missouri president Michael Middleton might be all the diversity the Missouri students can expect.

I raise this concern because many people are not pleased nor feel that justice has been served. There were already two death threats. The blogosphere, where anonymous truth reigns, reveals comments like: “black people are trying to control the administration. This has to stop if America is to have hope of remaining in tact.” Or, “[don’t] allow these people to shout racism against blacks”.

The truth about those with power, without fear of sounding cliché is: “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” because they are relentless in keeping things from changing.

Those with power know how to give the feel of change when the essential structures remain the same. Although Tim Wolfe is gone, the networks of power have not been restructured. Also, the governing board that watched Wolfe ignore students and faculty has not changed. Ironically, this same group will likely lead the search for a new president.

Power acts as a type of relation between people, a complex form of strategy, with the ability to secretly shape another’s behavior. On the student level we see white people willing to do the heavy lifting necessary to create change. However not enough of the whites in positions of power have displayed a commitment to altering white cultural imperative in favor of a diverse cultural imperative. Michel Foucault explains that power is a producer of reality, impacting entire networks, practices, the world around us, and how our behavior can be affected: “it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth”.

Here are the moments of truth that will signal true change: (1) Middleton immediately delivers on the list of demands; (2) racially diverse top administrators are hired; (3) the football team hires black offensive and/or defensive coordinators; and (4) in 2017 when Governor Jeremiah Nixon is tasked with selecting three replacements to the governing board he makes racially diverse choices.

African American men are over-represented on university basketball and football teams, but underrepresented as students, presidents, deans, vice presidents, tenured professors, full professors, and Trustees.

Thus, Pinkel’s imminent departure leaves me very concerned for the future of the thirty-two young black men that dared buck the system. I promise you it ain’t over. Soon Pinkel’s declaration that: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players” will be tested. I predict there will be repercussions for the Missouri 32, who may be asked to get out.

How long before an academic scandal is reported? How long before reports of criminal behavior among football players surfaces? Will the current athletic director make certain that the new coach protects the scholarships that are annually renewable at the discretion of the head coach?

Change is lasting power. Understanding what power is and how power works is key. As long as people in positions to evoke change do not change then power is safe.





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