Sports are supposed to be fun. For adults, they are a way to get some exercise. For children, they are a way to learn teamwork and the reward that comes from hard work.
Watching sports is also supposed to be fun. Being a fan of a team - whether it be in high school, college or professional – provides an outlet for the frustrations of the workaday world, and also provides a way to feel a part of something.
Playing professional sports is a different kettle of fish. A professional athlete has the pressure of the fan base, concerns about the media, and an outdated and perhaps soon-to-be-expired belief that they are supposed to be role models to those who are watching.
College athletes have it a little easier. While they are asked to represent the school for whom they play, they are more often considered a part of a collective, the team that represents the banner of the school and all of the alumni who attended that institution in the past.
College athletes are also college students, and college is a time when young adults often find their voice, and have the freedom to speak their mind on subjects that vex all people in the country or the world.
It was that opportunity that the black football players at the University of Missouri took when they decide to suspend their participation in the sport this week until the university did something to combat the long-standing attitude of racial disharmony that exists on the Columbia, Missouri campus.
Backing a hunger strike by another student to get the university president removed, the football players proved two things: they are college students with a voice, and being a part of the football team at a major college is a powerful connection.
Within 24 hours of the football players stating their position, the university president did in fact resign. So did the university chancellor. The hunger striker ate. The promise of a better, more racially sound environment at Missouri was promised.
And immediately thereupon, questions arose about whether the football players have the right to end their participation in the sport that is providing their college tuition in order to express an opinion. Likewise, questions were raised as to whether this incident shows again that athletes have too much power, and that our society places too much importance on the athletes who play our games for us.
In the Missouri case, the university blinked first. Facing a $1 million charge to their upcoming opponent Brigham Young University, the president resigned just hours after saying he wasn’t going to. But the resignation did not actually come until a group of African-American professors and teaching assistances cancelled classes on Monday to show their support for the call to action.
The college athletes were putting something at risk. They could have very easily had their scholarships revoked, or faced the threat thereof. But it is college athletes who are at the point in their lives, with the loudest voices they perhaps will ever have, who can take advantage of their situation to see if they can affect modern life and public opinion.
Obviously, professional athletes cannot do that. While we look to the pros to be role models (and many either disappoint or refuse to accept that mantle), professional athletes are discouraged from taking a stand. The National Football League fines any player that makes an in-game statement, including players who try to honor their deceased relatives by promoting increased awareness of the illness that took their father or mother.
The National Basketball Association allowed LeBron James and Derrick Rose to wear “I can’t breathe’’ T-shirts in pre-game warmups last season to show their displeasure with the death of a black man in New York who was placed in a stranglehold by an over-enthusiastic police officer for no seeming purpose. But James and Rose faced criticism from some for using that seemingly innocuous platform – a T-shirt worn for 15 minutes – to make a statement.
The greatest hero in the Missouri story may be coach Gary Pinkel, who backed his players’ decision, even though it could have prevented him from fielding a team in an upcoming game. Pinkel, who also backed graduating defensive end Michael Sam when he declared that he was a homosexual just before the end of his senior season, has proven that he understands there is more to life than football, especially on a college campus.
There IS more to life than sports. And there is more to sports than the final score. Sometimes, we have to stop playing sports to make a point.