Last week, Missouri state representative Rick Brattin proposed a bill that revoked athletic scholarships from student-athletes who protested, or supported protesting, by sitting out a game. Though he withdrew the bill on Dec. 16, the message the bill sent still remains.
HB1743 proposed revoking athletic scholarships from any student who “calls, incites, supports, or participates in any strike or concerted refusal to play a scheduled game.” It also threatened supportive college coaches with a fine.
Brattin proposed this bill in response to the recent events at the University of Missouri where the men’s football team threatened to boycott all games and practices unless president Tim Wolfe resigned in a show of solidarity with the student group Concerned Student 1950 and with the support of the university’s athletic department.
When Wolfe resigned on Nov. 9, the athletes returned.
Brattin said he proposed the bill to spark a discussion on how MU should maintain order, and though the bill has no legislative legs, he succeeded in provoking a question.
What message did Brattin send by proposing this legislation?
Dr. Stephanie Shonekan, Chair of the University of Missouri’s Department of Black Studies, said the bill sent a message discouraging anybody from having “any kind of socially conscious thoughts,” particularly the African-American players who threatened to boycott.
“People think the football players are workers and they’re there to do a job,” Shonekan said. “But they are actually students first. We should not send the message that their critical thinking is not important.”
Jeanette Samuels, a civil rights attorney from Chicago, said the intent behind HB1743 is clear.
“[He’s] saying, ‘If you use your constitutional rights, we’ll take away what we’re contractually bound to give you,’” Samuels said. “And that’s depriving them of their constitutional rights.”
Jake Berger, associate attorney with McDonald Hopkins, said the bill is “insanely overbroad” and sends the message that dissent will not be tolerated. Instead of having a substantive conversation about how MU handled the racial complaints, Brattin is sending the message,“We don’t even want to hear what your problem is.”
“[The bill] says ‘we’re not interested in hearing about systemic problems and we’re not interested in discussing systemic problems,’” Berger said.
When asked if the message died with the bill, Berger said the damage was done. He said recent events in Ferguson show that “civil society in Missouri doesn’t want to have a discussion about race,” and this bill was a show of political posturing.
“You can rescind the bill but you can’t rescind the message,” Berger said.
Shonekan said Brattin’s bill raised questions on what kind of legislation can be written against students who attempt to raise the consciousness of the university, and that question doesn’t change just because Brattin rescinded the bill.
Berger believes Brattin’s bill was a symptom of political and racial polarization that is endemic to our country and repugnant to the principles our country was founded on.
“We’ve got a serious problem in our country that we want to muffle the other side out and prevent them from asserting what their message is,” Berger said. “I think people are trying to end run around the First Amendment.”
Berger believes this is an obvious racial issue, and Samuels said this bill would affect African-American athletes the most.
“When you look at the sports that bring in the most money for universities, the members are usually disproportionately African-American,” Samuels said.
Samuels may have a point regarding the Missouri Tigers. The football boycott had a projected cost of up to $1 million.
Considering similar protests at other colleges across the country like Yale, the Brattin Bill is the first of its kind, but it may not be the last. More protests against racial discrimination in our justice system and in education will always receive a negative response from those who see no need for it. The problem arises when the people who don’t see a problem are the very people who have the ability to enact laws that discourage students from expressing their grievances.
The Brattin Bill represents the age-old American ethos that speaking about racial prejudice and standing up against it in our country should be punished instead of encouraged. To paraphrase Willie Lynch’s letter, the bill tells African-American athletes in Missouri to keep their minds weak and dependent but their bodies strong enough to fulfill their physical duties. Instead of promoting a discussion about race, it promoted subservience under the guise of “maintaining order.”
Shonekan believes that an institution of learning should encourage critical thinking instead of punishing it, and that is the opposite of what the Brattin Bill promoted.
“The message of the bill is that there are things that we are discouraged from thinking about,” Shonekan said. “And one of the no-go areas is challenging the status-quo.”
So far, the Brattin Bill has sparked the discussion. Whether it’s going in the direction Brattin hoped for remains to be seen.
Never stop thinking, my friends.