The quagmire emerged late Saturday, when the University of Missouri’s African-American football players vowed not to participate in team activities until system President Tim Wolfe was removed for what activists termed “negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.”
As many struggled to straddle the delicate line between respecting the players’ stance and being bullied by it, a little over 12 hours later MU coach Gary Pinkel materialized from the fog and all the posturing with a clear message.
“The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players,” he had posted on his Twitter account with a picture of what appeared to be most of the team and coaches.
The tweet also added a hashtag acknowledgment of Concerned Student 1950, the activist group that convinced Missouri players to join the cause and was named for the first year African-Americans were admitted to MU.
If that seemed like a nimble response from Pinkel amid a cauldron of chaos that leaves unclear the status of MU’s game against Brigham Young scheduled for Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, maybe it’s because Pinkel has continually evolved to hold a certain clarity of identity now as what people like to call a servant leader.
It’s also surely because Pinkel, who canceled the team practice on Sunday, had experiences with civil rights and activism in the past.
On May 4, 1970, as Pinkel sat at a Dairy Queen in Akron, Ohio, in his Volkswagen Beetle eating lunch with his girlfriend, the music on the radio was interrupted by a bulletin that National Guardsman had shot and killed four students at Kent State — where high school-senior Pinkel planned to go to school.
When he got back to Kenmore High for his literature class, the teacher had written on the board, “National Guard 4, KSU 0,” precipitating an emotional discussion.
Pinkel decided to attend Kent State, anyway, but those turbulent times began to change a belief system he’d held in part because his father, George, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
“I was always a G.I. Joe, Mr. USA guy,” Gary Pinkel said, saluting as he sat in his office during a 2010 interview I did with him for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That was just how I was brought up.
“But I was a little less naive after the Vietnam War about trusting your government about everything. After that, I kind of felt like you analyze, rather than (trusting) somebody else to analyze.”
That helps explain why one of the first things Pinkel did when he took over at MU after the 2000 football season was to hear out high school coaches in St. Louis.
They had been disenchanted with the school for a number of reasons that harkened to a racist past symbolized by the playing of Dixie and waving of a Confederate flag after touchdowns well into the 1960s.
Pinkel listened. And he listened and listened, making it a point to say almost nothing that night.
Then he responded with a far more consistent and nurturing recruiting approach around the state and with such gestures as honoring in the MU football complex the school’s first black player, Norris Stevenson.
So Pinkel, whose team (4-5) has struggled this year after winning the last two Southeastern Conference East division titles, rose to become the coach with the most wins in school history not just because of his strategic smarts but also because of his adaptability to fragile issues.
Consider, for instance, how he opened himself up over the years in the wake of the death of Aaron O’Neal in 2005.
Or his thoughtful approach to Michael Sam in 2013 after the star defensive end announced to the team that he was gay — a virtually unheard-of development.
Now Pinkel’s instincts for diplomacy seem to represent MU’s best chance to move through a fraught scene that threatens the immediate future of the program as well as the school.
The athletic department is the front porch of a university, former Missouri athletic director Mike Alden liked to say.
That’s why the series of racist episodes at MU went from bubbling for weeks to instant critical mass Saturday.
Enabled by what at least is widely perceived as a tardy, tin-eared and insincere initial approach by Wolfe that may prove his undoing no matter how he tried to atone later — and no doubt tethered to the lingering aura of Ferguson and the dark past for MU — this now is a chaotic national story with no tidy end in sight.
Unless some sort of unfathomable compromise or concessions can be brokered soon, either Wolfe will be ousted some way or another or Missouri could forfeit its game against BYU and owe it $1 million.
All while graduate student Jonathan Butler extends his hunger strike for the cause as long as he can since starting last Monday.
With players to finally be available to the media on Monday, much remains to be clarified about all this — including the identities of some of those accused of hurling slurs and smearing a swastika in human feces on a dorm wall.
But some elements of this are evident.
The front porch of the university isn’t just a façade:
It’s where the school’s leadership is coming from.
While Wolfe on Friday offered an apology for one element of his approach, he will find it hard to shrug away his failure to quickly publicly denounce the first in a string of reported incidents or to project genuine concern in meeting with disenfranchised leaders.
Simply put, even with chancellor R. Bowen Loftin offering some timely words, Wolfe needed to respond more proactively and marshal university forces weeks before.
Had he done that, this might not have become the runaway freight train it did when the team’s African-American players decided to embrace the too-often unappreciated aspect of their identity as student-athletes.
Some detractors are labeling their undertaking as misguided insubordination and seem to think there should be a punishment looming from the university.
No way, no how.
MU might as well shut down its football program for a few years if it’s going to punish them, because the unmistakable message would be one of intolerance of dissent with obvious racial implications.
However you feel about it, this much is indisputable:
This is a matter of conviction and conscience to the players, who in fact are taking a stand not so much for themselves as others.
“An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere,” MU captain Ian Simon tweeted, channeling Martin Luther King Jr.
No one understands where they are coming from better than Pinkel, who is about as well-equipped to work with this thorny Rubik’s Cube as anyone could be — and is off to a fine start with his decisive commitment to his players.