Republican lawmakers in Missouri attempted to silence student athletes and take away their right to free speech and take away their scholarships following theUniversity of Missouri football team’sinfluence last month in joining protesters to call for the removal of theschool’s president and chancellor for failing to address racial issues on campus.
The bill, proposedFriday byRep.Rick Brattin, sought to revoke the scholarship of”any college athlete who calls, incites, supports, or participates in any strike or concerted refusal to play a scheduled game,” according to thebill’s text.
It was the Mizzoufootball team’s threatened strike last month that brought the national spotlight to protesters who were alreadyengaged in walkouts and a hunger strike inresponse to former president Tim Wolfe’s inaction regarding racism on campus.Wolfe resigned from his position on Nov. 9, taking “full responsibility for this frustration and inaction.” Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned the same day.
But Brattin said he did not think the school’s leaders should have resigned, saying, “The university should have stood against this anarchy that happened with this protest.”
Rep. Kurt Bahr, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Columbian Missourian that the bill was “obviously in reaction to the athletes who were saying they weren’t going to play to what they considered to be social issues on campus. I don’t think that is an appropriate response on their part.”
Bahr added that the bill did not seek to take away free speech: “The issue really is, they can have freedom of speech [when they] like or don’t like something on campus, but if they’re going to receive state money, there are going to be ramifications.”
The bill was not limited to students, either: “Any member of a coaching staff who encourages or enables a college athlete to engage in behavior prohibited under this section shall be fined by his or her institution of employment.”
However,onWednesdaythe bill was withdrawn from theMissouri House of Representatives.
In addition to violating the First Amendment, the bill’s reasoning still fell flat because, according to the school’s student-athlete handbook, Mizzou’s athletic department does not operate using state funds: “The University of Missouri does not receive state appropriated funds to operate its intercollegiate athletics programs, thus, similar to private business, the Mizzou Athletics Department must operate solely from what revenue it generates.”
Bahr admitted to the Columbian Missourian that he had in fact not read the student-athlete handbook.
Following the bill’s withdrawal, Brattin insisted that the bill had no racial motivations behind it and described the university as “a complete train wreck … due to [the football player’s] actions.” He said he believes there is no racial tension on Mizzou’s campus, which he said he knows from speaking to students on campus. However, he also admitted he did not speak with any Black students.
Ian Simon, a Missouri Tigers team captain who also served as a leader in the team’s boycott, said the state’s reaction did not come as a shock to him and that the protests likely “scared some people” because of what a hold the football team has on the university. Despite the state’s response, Simon said the team would continue to stand up for social justice issues if the opportunity arose again because they are more than simply revenue-generating sports players.
“They want to call us student-athletes, but they keep us out of the student part of it,” he said. “I’m more than just a football player. As soon as we’re done playing at the University of Missouri, the University of Missouri does not care about us anymore. We are not their responsibility. Our sport is just a small part of who we are.”
Meanwhile, other state representatives saw that the bill was simply a way to silence those who challenged the status quo in Missouri. Democratic Rep. Brandon Ellington, who is also the chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said, “The bill’s sponsors demonstrate a mentality toward racism that unfortunately is shared by too many Missourians. It is a mentality under which racism and institutionalized injustice are ignored and black Missourians who shatter that blissful ignorance by forcefully speaking out must be silenced.”
The focus on not only racial injustices but also on money has, incidentally, played a large role in the situation since the protests. Wolfe did not step down until the football players declared their boycott, so their participation arguably served as an important point for the protests which could indicate why the bill makers targeted athletes in their proposal.
Initially, Black members of the team declared a boycott; they were then joined by their white teammates as well. All of the players said they would not play in the game scheduled for that upcoming weekend, which would have meant a loss of an estimated $1 million for the university if Wolfe did not resign.
Brattin said in a statement, “I sincerely believe students should be able to express their viewpoints, but I also believe our flagship state university has to keep and maintain the order that is expected from such an esteemed education institution.” Given the nature of his bill and his subsequent rhetoric, though, perhaps Brattin only believes students should be able to express themselves if it does not cost the state or the university any money or compromise either one’s reputation.