COLORS: On Missouri, Football, Race & Higher Education

By: Terrence A. Merkerson

***There is no intention or motive to defame, condemn, or belittle PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) or HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities), or their respective faculty, staff, students or alumni.

I saw a report today on CNN genuinely asking if US colleges have a race problem…. Where the hell have y’all been???

Alright, let’s talk about race, again, but this time in a slightly different context. One of the last openly and overtly defiant acts in the attempt to preserve segregation in higher education occurred at my alma mater, The University of Alabama in 1963, when then-Alabama Governor George Wallace literally stood in front of U of A’s Foster Auditorium denying the entry of three black students. Earlier that year, Wallace professed in his inaugural speech, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Well, old Georgie Boy was right, but maybe not in the way that he initially intended. While our schools and education systems across the board are more “integrated” than ever before, our schools from Pre-K through Graduate & Professional School remain as some of the most segregated spaces in society. Reflecting on my own undergraduate experience, it is difficult to determine whether segregation was intentionally encouraged or if it willfully chosen.

At the University of Alabama, along with most PWIs, there are two very different campuses and college experiences. Student & Greek life is tremendously insulated on the campuses of PWIs. This is intentional. Most university administrations “encourage” the intermingling of all races and nationalities, particularly in the Greek systems, but those incentives are minute and often completely ignored and disregarded. This kind “encouragement” basically suggests that “we put you all in the same area, so you can mix it up if you want, but it you don’t, it’s cool. We aren’t tripping.” This is the message that is being sent to student bodies across the country. As an 18 year-old kid, one will naturally gravitate towards what’s comfortable and considering how segregated our neighborhoods, communities and local schools are, it is not unreasonable to assume who’s hanging with who. Segregation is the breeding ground for bigotry, discrimination and social insensitivity and it directly inhibits what I believe to be the most powerful weapons that can be used to combat social injustice, interaction and communication.

Recently, we have seen a number of racial incidents pop-up on the campuses of PWIs across the nation. By no means is this anything new. In the age of instant media, these moments are being finally being captured so that the world can finally see that students of color have not been “crying wolf” on the campuses of PWIs. This shit is real and has been for quite some time. The responses offered by the administrations of these schools has been underwhelming at its very best, but what has and continues to happen at the University of Missouri is a unique, but likely to be isolated victory for social change on the campuses of predominantly white schools. Let’s take a step back and review.

The groundswell of contempt for the University of Missouri’s Administration and its lack of action to protect marginalized groups on its campus began back in September, with additional incidents and protests occurring from September through to the resignation of both Mizzou’s President and Chancellor earlier this week. The tipping point came when a significant number of the members of the University of Missouri’s Football Team decided to boycott all football activities in support of the protests. With the support of their coach, Gary Pinkel, a wave of pressure was placed on the Administration at the University to do something. Two days after football players joined the protests, both the president and chancellor of the university step down. Coincidental timing? Hardly. The “meat & potatoes” of this situation is that Mizzou football holds a tremendous amount of leverage, as do most big time college football programs over their respective schools. Considering that they are the most popular and nationally visible representatives of the University (add that they are in the middle of their season) only heightens their leverage. Mizzou’s athletic program generated $84 million dollars in revenue last year, much of that money rests solely on the shoulder pads of their football team, a predominantly Black football team (just like every other D-1 football team in America). Money talks people. If Missouri were to have had to forfeit just ONE game, the school would lose somewhere in the range of $2.5 million dollars. ONE GAME = $2.5M. That number ONLY represents the actual pecuniary damages. Again, money talks.

The next assumption to imagine is if something like this were to happen to one of the “Blue-Bloods” of college football. Consider this happening at LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas or at my very own, University of Alabama… would the result be the same? Upon first thought, one familiar with such a school would think that there is no way football would get shut down in protest of anything. Upon second thought, one may be more inclined to change their mind. Not only are Alabama and Ohio State are on a collision course to meet for the second year in a row in the College Football Playoff, they both are also in the top five of all schools in regard to revenue generated by their football programs (to correlate, Missouri is only 35th). Imagine if one of their football teams decided not to play. ALL HELL WOULD BREAK LOOSE. Ideally, no one wants to find themselves on the wrong side of history, but ridiculous as it may seem, NO ONE would want to be responsible for derailing a highly ranked, national title contending football program, mid-season. The backlash would fail in comparison to that being experienced by students of color at Mizzou, but that is not to diminish the significance of their efforts or their plight. A standard has been set here. Let’s see how many other schools follow suit.

There is also another form of segregation that exists internally within the Black Culture. Students, alumni and supporters of HBCUs have always seemed to hold a level of contempt towards the black students, alumni and supporters of PWIs and in many ways, rightfully so. At a time when Blacks were not allowed to attend PWIs, HBCUs offered us the opportunity to grow, learn and study to further our education and expand our opportunities. Some of our greatest leaders and heroes are graduates of HBCUs. These schools are to Black people what Israel is to Christianity and although I am a proud graduate of a PWI, I firmly believe this to be true. But to suggest that these problems would be solved by Black students leaving PWIs to attend HBCUs, just to feel safe and valued is senseless and backwards-minded. Not only does that further isolate Black students from many experiences, opportunities and advantages that HBCUs simply cannot offer, it also further segregates Black and White students. Let us not forget that the whole “Separate but, Equal” thing failed miserably. Let’s not re-live the mistakes of the past (especially the ones that were not our ideas in the first place). We must support our HBCUs and HBCUs must support the Black students of PWIs as well. Division amongst us is not the solution, it is part of the problem.

Regardless of your skin color or school colors, segregation, discrimination and bigotry runs rampant and often unchecked on college campuses across this country. Missouri held their administration accountable and used the greatest leverage accessible to them, a football team full of young Black men who generate roughly 10% of the schools revenue and are indirectly responsible for an incalculable amount of the rest. Are folks pissed off? Sure. Will fans stop attending games, buying jerseys (that players aren’t getting paid for) and funneling money into the program? Hell no. If you aren’t pissing someone off, you likely aren’t doing anything important. So considering how pissed off some of these white folks are, I think that we just might be changing the world and that sounds pretty damn important to me.

Terrence Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama earning a Master’s Degree in Communication.

He currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA.


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