Last week, University of Missouri football players threatened to boycott the team’s upcoming game against Brigham Young University (BYU) unless the school’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigned or was fired for his handling of race issues.
Inevitably, Wolfe resigned, along with the university’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftinand, and Mizzou’s football team went on to play its game and defeat BYU 20-16 in Kansas City last Saturday.
However, this unprecedented show by the Missouri Tigers football team raised a lot of questions. In the blink of an eye, the power of college football was about to force out two of the university’s highest-ranking officials without any sort of due process and without anyone able to specifically enumerate what these two individuals did to warrant being removed from their posts.
And this was done by a Missouri football team which, at the time, had a 4-5 overall record and was 1-5 in the SEC East, tied for last place.
What if this had happened here in Alabama, with a 9-1 Crimson Tide football team in the hunt for a national championship?
Imagine that happening in a place where oak trees were poisoned over the outcome of a 2010 Auburn-Alabama football game, or where two people were shot in Conecuh County after a 2008 football game in which Alabama beat LSU in overtime.
In a place where residents invest such emotional stock in college football, if either the University of Alabama or Auburn University’s football players decided to hold their team’s season hostage over a set of political demands, it’s hard to imagine what type of reaction that might instigate within the state.
Unlike the state of Missouri, a state with two NFL teams and two Major League Baseball teams, college football is the only thing in Alabama — and that goes back over the last century.
In 1926, Alabama was still was still suffering the effects of the Civil War. However, an improbable 20-19 Crimson Tide victory over the University of Washington in the Rose Bowl that year that gave Alabama its first national championship and the first winning cause for the state to rally around since Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
“Fight on, fight on, fight on, men,” the University of Alabama’s fight song goes. “Remember the Rose Bowl we’ll win then! Go, roll to victory. Hit your stride. You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide!”
From then on, led by the success of the University of Alabama, college football has been a priority for other major state colleges around the South.
If what happened at Missouri had happened at Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee or LSU, would the reaction be quite the same? Would there be people singing the praises of the student athletes putting a higher priority on their political ideology than on the efforts of a team that has so many loyal followers throughout their states?
My guess is no.
Although an athletic scholarship isn’t quite a legally binding contract, it does suggest you will put a focus on football over other activities, including politics. And if you as a player aren’t willing to give that commitment, then you perhaps would be better served spending spare time away from studies with the College Democrats over the practice field.
If tomorrow any of the aforementioned colleges’ football teams decided to go full social justice warrior and threaten a boycott unless the demands within a list grievances were met, my guess is the backlash might force more than a change within the university systems’ leaderships, perhaps everything from the governor on down to the football teams’ waterboys.
There might be a level of dissension over Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed multimillion tax hikes, but that would be nothing compared to the outrage that would be on display throughout the state if the Auburn-Alabama game were canceled.
Even at the heights of the Civil Rights struggle in the state, Alabama head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was reluctant to involve himself in the politics of the day, including Gov. George Wallace’s pro-segregation effort that was capped off by his 1963 “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.”
What if Bryant had spoken out against segregation — and even put it in the context of making the University of Alabama an even better football program? History might have been different.
But he didn’t. It wasn’t until many years later in 1971 that the first black football player, John Mitchell, took the field for the Crimson Tide.
Bryant wasn’t willing to use his platform to drive social change then, but a group of 18-to-20-somethings in Columbia, Missouri, were over some nebulous claims.
The times are a-changing, but I would expect if this became a new normal, there would definitely be some pushback from the broader public.
A lot of college campuses are cesspools of liberalism, even in solidly red Alabama. It just takes a certain kind of individual to preach the virtues of Plato’s “Republic” and how we apply them to our today for common good.
And perhaps the taxpaying public is OK with that. Let’s have our best and brightest spend some time at the university to romanticize about the way things could be in a utopia before they are confronted with the real world.
However, if this high-minded piety preached on the university campus starts to interfere with the autumnal weekly college football rituals, that could be the moment when the tables will turn and we’ll really start to question some of the left-of-center tripe doled out on America’s college campuses.
My guess is that our public college and universities probably don’t want that level of scrutiny.