The Missouri Tigers football team, in an act of unparalleled audacity, refused to take the field last November unless the university system president, Tim Wolfe, resigned and, sure enough, within 36 hours he was gone. The team should be lauded for its bravery. Instead, the right-wing Missouri state legislature, lash in hand, wants it to pay a price for its disobedience.
The players were striking against the suffocating, deeply rooted racist atmosphere on campus. They were standing with their fellow students, including one putting his life in peril on a hunger strike. They were risking their scholarships and their futures. They were showing what leadership and character in the realm of sports look like when unmoored from athletic cliché. They were also demonstrating that college athletes have actual power. Not merely moral power, but the social and economic power to stall a system dependent on their labor and compliance. This inspired so many disgusted with the status quo in college sports.
But for some in the Jefferson City, Missouri, Capitol building, it was not an inspiration. It was a crime.
Missouri’s elected officials want legislation to ensure that any scholarship athlete who exercises their collective voice, is rewarded with a flayed future. In the newly proposed House Bill 1743, State Representative Rick Brattin, is bringing the phrase “shut up and play” to the level of a law that calls for “any scholarship athlete who refuses to play for a reason unrelated to health, shall have his or her scholarship revoked.” In other words, future actions like the ones of the Mizzou players will be criminalized.
This legislation is a craven, blaringly anti-democratic gesture, openly aimed at the football team. One of its sponsors, Representative Kurt Bahr, commented to the Columbia Missourian that the legislation 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.” Make no mistake about it. Given that it is targeting and punishing an entity that is 69 percent black, it is also racist: aimed at silencing black voices and diminishing black lives on campus.
One player texted me, “We joke about the NCAA plantation politics but this wild. What’s next? We lose scholarships if we go to a protest, or if we speak in class?”
But before unpacking why this is so utterly awful, it is worth knowing something about the twisted sadist proposing it. In recent months, the 35-year-old Brattin has introduced a legislation that seems conjured from a coked-up weekend in Tijuana with Rush Limbaugh. He proposed making abortions unattainable without the written consent of the father (vividly citing in great detail his own vasectomy as inspiration for the bill); a law preventing food-stamp recipients from buying “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak,” and—showing that he is of the moment—to keep Syrian refugees from settling in the state. But the coup de grâce was when this sick puppy attempted to introduce legislation that would force Planned Parenthood to erect a memorial to aborted fetuses. Seriously. He said, “I think maybe requiring that Planned Parenthood set up some type of memorial, like a Vietnam Wall type. I know that sounds crazy, but by state law [fetuses are] given human status, so should there be a human memorial attached to that human life?” (Quick response to Brattin: Yes, it sounds crazy).
I spoke with Missouri English professor Sam Cohen. He said, “We’re getting used to grandstanding legislators in our state house, but Rick Brattin has outdone himself. We’re proud of and inspired by these players and the student protests that changed our campus for the better this fall and Brattin’s absurd proposal can’t change that…. It’s not just that the bill would violate athlete’s rights, it’s that it is so blatantly directed against Mizzou’s football players because of their role in protests this fall—and by extension against the protests themselves.”
But Brattin, Bahr, and their minions will not get this done without a fight. I spoke with the NFL Players Association, who called the law “deplorable” and said, “The NFLPA will alert their executive committee and player reps of this and we stand against it.”
I also spoke with Missouri women’s gender studies professor Dr. Rebecca Martinez, who said, “Representative Brattin is clearly stating with the introduction of this legislation that these young men are black labor, here for entertainment and revenue, not as students. If this legislation passes, it will do harm to our campus by further silencing rather than encouraging dissent and pluralism from all of our students which, after all, are hallmarks of critical thinking and education. Our interim chancellor sent out Mizzou community an email regarding this, where he said, ‘Mizzou, to its credit, is a place where dissent and activism are not just tolerated, but embraced.’”
The football players at Missouri deserve our support and solidarity, and Brattin has revealed himself to be the sort of person who wants to treat human beings like chattel, seen and not heard. It’s a shameful law. It’s a racist law. And if it is passed, players should do what they did last November: fold their arms and refuse to take the field, as the school hemorrhages millions of dollars. Let them try and find a new team on a week’s notice next fall. Or maybe Brattin and his cronies can put on the pads and suit up against Alabama. Now, that I would pay to see.
Update: Benjamin Watson, tight end for the New Orleans Saints and member of the NFL Players Association’s Executive Committee, sent the following statement to The Nation in regards to State Representative Rick Brattin’s House Bill 1743:
“This proposed legislation is clearly an attempt to silence student athletes by threatening to take away their education. Instead of using scare tactics I would encourage the legislatures as well as the university administrations to engage with their students, athletes and non-athletes alike, to find solutions to their concerns.”