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Why black football players at University of Missouri are boycotting

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Ellise Verheyen/Missourian/AP

(Read caption) Members of the Legion of Black Collegian and the Concerned Student 1950 supporters gather outside the Reynolds Alumni Center Saturday after an emotional protest on the University of Missouri campus, in Columbia, Mo. Some campus groups have been protesting the way university president Tim Wolfe has dealt with issues of racial harassment during the school year.

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About 120 miles west of Ferguson, black students at the University of Missouri are using a powerful platform to fight what they believe is the school administration's apathy towards racism on campus: football.

More than 30 players on the NCAA Division I team are calling on university president Tim Wolfe to resign, announcing on Twitter Saturday night that if he doesn’t, they will boycott all football-related activities, including the three games left in the season.

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A photo of 32 black men with their arms linked accompanied the following statement on Twitter, reported the Associated Press: “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.’ We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”

The players join other groups that have complained about feeling threatened, with black students saying that racial slurs have been shouted at them campus, and Jewish students discovering a swastika painted in human feces in a dormitory, according to the Kansas City Star.

Graduate student Jonathan Butler on Saturday was in his sixth day of a hunger strike to force school administrators to take action against these and other incidents.

“His voice for social justice is important and powerful. He is being heard, and I am listening,” President Wolfe said of Mr. Butler.

But given that football brings in tens of millions of dollars in revenue at University of Missouri – and that 58 of the school’s 84 scholarship football players are black – it might be the most powerful weapon minority students at the university can wield to ensure their demands are met.

“These football players are advertisers for the university,” says former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, founder and head of the National College Players Association, an advocate for current and former division I college athletes.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Huma explains that sports, particularly football, generate the most publicity for universities and help them build their brand to recruit players and students.

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“Athletes have a lot of sway when it comes to public pressure,” he says.

Missouri’s football team generated $31.9 million in revenue in the 2012-13 school year, or 42 percent of the athletic department’s overall $76.3 million in revenue, reported the Columbia Daily Tribune last year. Football and men's basketball ($12.6 million in revenue) accounted for 89 percent of the ticket-sale revenue for the school’s athletic department that year.

Nationwide, reports The New York Times, college football brings in at least 65 percent of total revenue at major athletic programs.

These figures give players a lot of leverage. That’s why when players at Grambling State University, a historically black college in Louisiana, refused to practice or play a game in 2013 until the university addressed unsanitary conditions at its athletic complex and too-long bus trips to games that left them exhausted, “They got what they wanted,” according to Huma.

More recent protests include one in March by football players at University of Oklahoma. They held silent protests, walked out of practice, and joined campus demonstrations after a video surfaced showing Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members chanting racist remarks. University president David Boren kicked the fraternity off campus and expelled two students within a few days.

Wolfe has apologized and met with Mr. Butler and student groups on Friday to discuss how the school handles racial harassment cases. It is yet to be seen whether pressure from the football team will lead to his resignation or termination, though Huma and university protesters think his response to students has been inadequate.

“Do I think this is a situation where he may be fired?” asks Huma. “I think it is.”