What We Can Learn From Missouri


Daron Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a former NFL coach and teaches courses on leadership. Follow him on Twitter @CoachDKR.

Less than 24 hours after University of Missouri football head coach Gary Pinkel tweeted support for the #ConcernedStudent1950 efforts at Mizzou, president Tim Wolfe resigned.

Cynics would point to simple math as the reason for Wolfe’s departure. Missouri football generated $35.64 million in 2014. Pinkel, Missouri’s highest paid state employee, earned $3.76 million in the same year. Failure to play against Brigham Young University would have forced Mizzou to fork over $1 million to the BYU athletic department per contract details. The numbers would suggest that Wolfe had to go.

But what happened at Mizzou goes beyond the economics of college football. What we witnessed was a student-led initiative that evolved into a student-athlete-supported initiative that turned into a coach-endorsed movement. Students were the first movers in this story, and to Coach Pinkel’s credit, he joined the right side of history.

Athletic departments, coaches, athletes, and non-athletes across the country would be well-served to take note of what happened at Mizzou. The episode is a case study in off-the-field leadership, something that is needed more in athletic departments across the country.

The calculated boycott by the Mizzou football team underscores their deep understanding of what was at stake. They issued what amounted to a leveraged buyout of the university’s leadership. For years, critics have bemoaned the fact that college athletes have received the short end of the economic stick. This slight tilt grants leverage to student-athletes that many of them were afraid to wield.

Pinkel’s show of support to the approximately 30 student-athletes who refused to practice or play in games until Wolfe resigned ultimately made the difference. While it represented a bold move by an employee who is essentially advocating the ouster of his boss, it was more than that. Pinkel had a difficult choice to make—whether to support his players or the administration—and he chose his team.

And that is exactly what he should have done. Pinkel’s stance moves beyond the cosmetic appeal of locker room signs that praise teamwork, toughness, and courage. He demonstrated those ideals in a very public way. In an age when social media allows people to voice opinions from their couches, Pinkel’s show of support was refreshing.

An alliance between athletes and non-athletes is a powerful combination. I teach a class called Gameplan for Winning at Life that is split between freshman athletes and non-athletes. We examine leadership theory, race theory, communication skills, and financial literacy. I force the athletes and non-athletes to mix together in groups because a recurrent theme on campuses across the country is widespread dissatisfaction with how seldom the two groups interact. Oftentimes the rigorous athletic schedules of athletes impair their ability to engage the larger university community, and sometimes they don’t recognize the value.

What the Missouri situation shows us is how bridging the gap between these two groups can create powerful connections. This potency goes beyond social activism. These unified men and women have the potential to create new solutions to old problems.

Universities must be more active in training all their students in sound leadership and ethics. Old methods of responding to campus issues will not work. Former President Wolfe’s on-camera insensitivity to protesters and release of a sanitized news release represents the old way of doing business. At some point, administrators will have to descend from the ivory tower and engage students in a meaningful way, but through social media outlets and in person.

Given the visibility of what happened in Missouri, athletic departments, coaches, and athletes across the country now have an example to see what leadership looks like. One can imagine that the members of the Mizzou football team will look back on this experience as a reference point for standing up for one’s beliefs—no matter the political fallout.

In its core values, the NCAA professes to champion, “The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social, and athletics experiences.”

So much for balance. The Mizzou football team and its head coach took a bold stand. This is the essence of leadership. It would be nice if more of us learned from it.

Photo via @1Sherrils_2MIZZ/Twitter


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