Power to the Players!

Saturday evening, many of the University of Missouri football players took a stand against racism at their school. They said no more football until the University President resigns because of his failure to address both the overt and systemic racism that has repeatedly reared its head at UM.

I hear a lot of white people (especially of the male variety), expressing “concern” and even anger that players would have the audacity to make such demands. They say they should have their scholarships revoked if they refuse to participate in team activities and games. This kind of reaction is just the sort of dynamic that makes the players’ actions something I support with every fiber of my being.

Here’s why:

I am a Christian. Interestingly enough, some of the above-mentioned concerned and/or enraged individuals are also brothers in Christ. In other words, they are Christians, too. I just spent several days at a conference with several such gentlemen, who respectfully decline to see collegiate revenue athletes as economically exploited, as disadvantaged because of their racial identity, or as encountering anything but “special treatment” for which they should be grateful.

The way Jesus occupies my heart, however, leads me to a very different way of seeing the situation collegiate revenue athletes are in, especially young men of color. They are an unpaid labor force, kept in check by a dizzying array of regulations and enforcement that it takes staffs of people to understand, interpret, and enforce. This situation leads to statistically quantifiable systemic disadvantage that we can trace in all sorts of ways. In other words, this is a situation in which our Christian concerns about economic justice should be raised. The voices of the prophets and of Jesus, himself, ring out in judgment over and over again about this human tendency to be greedy and to use others for one’s own gain. Christians should be on it! But, generally, we have not been.

One of the things I continue to pray for in this unjust situation is that players find their voice and begin to live into the power they have to enact change. And the University of Missouri players’ bold stand is an inspiring witness to the courage of finding one’s voice and of living into one’s power. If anyone wants to say that these young men are not revenue generators, sit back and watch how this plays out. (Of course we know now that in less than 48 hours the President and the Chancellor had resigned). Just one game will cost the university well over a million dollars in TV money and other revenues if it doesn’t happen. And without players, there is no football. As a Christian, seeing people take a risk to speak truth to power and demand that a sin as profound as systemic racism be urgently addressed is to see a prophetic witness in our midst. I am grateful. I am inspired.

I am a football coach’s wife. I honestly don’t know how many other coaches’ wives feel about these issues because hardly anyone in the coaching ranks talks about them. There seems to be an unspoken rule that we should not ask such questions. Obviously, John and I have broken that rule several times. And the number one reason why I have broken that rule, and will continue to break it, is the players.

The young men John has coached through the years are profoundly loved by our family. And I believe they deserve better. And I believe they deserve to be heard, they deserve to have ways to exercise their agency and their power just like everyone else in this country. And I believe they should be able to have a robust college experience where they figure out who they are, find their passion, and find their voice.

Remember, the players at UM are coming alongside their fellow students who were already protesting—including one who has been on a hunger strike since November 2. The players have a right to join in the chorus. And they have a right to bring whatever tools, skills, and assets they have to the table. Nothing could make me feel more hopeful than to see players live into a robust understanding of the outstanding human beings that they are.

I am an American. The UM players aren’t the only ones speaking out. Athletes at University of Illinois, SMU, and former players at UNC are just some who are taking stands, speaking their truth, holding institutions accountable for their responsibility to ALL students, and demanding change. Some of these players are using the legal system to enact change, and there are many who have demonized them for that choice.

Legal remedies are often the route people choose when institutions are not responsive, when the powers that be are not accountable, and when justice has not been served by other means. Remember, the Civil Rights movement had a profound judicial layer to it. The demon of racism will not easily vacate its American institutional host. And sometimes, we have to use the rule of law to combat it when our collective moral conscience does not do the job.

True patriots hold the country they love to its word, to its grandest aspirations. Our country has not dealt adequately with the wounds of race, and our institutions (education, law enforcement, religious, etc.) bear the marks and enact the habits of our continued disease.

This country’s best hope is that we up our game when it comes to race—all of us can be impact players in that effort. And we all stand to win if we give it our best. Power to the players!

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