SAN DIEGO — On the northeast end of town, off Interstate 15, down the street from the superior court building, right behind the Sonic Drive-In, you’ll find a place called Elbowroom. It’s a typical sports bar—replete with salty finger foods, local beer on tap and flat screen TVs that hang from the walls alongside framed posters of Steve McQueen and the Rat Pack.
Elbowroom’s reputation is as a Cleveland Browns bar; the orange bulldog banner out front makes that plain. But that hasn’t stopped the local chapter of the Missouri Alumni Association from planting its own flag—right next to the Browns banner, actually—and making themselves at home. Last Saturday they gathered here to cheer on Missouri against Brigham Young. So I joined them.
I graduated from the university in 2003. While on campus, I tried many new things like Steely Dan and Dippin Dots (though not at the same time), made many enduring friendships and picked up a trade, journalism, that still covers expenses. I thought it was a fairly typical college experience.
That is, until the Saturday before last. It was then, in the middle of Alabama-LSU, that I got a phone alert about a collection of black players on Mizzou’s football team going on a boycott until Tim Wolfe stepped down as university president. At issue was Wolfe’s indifferent response to a series of racially charged incidents on campus—a cause that would unite black students in protest. For the rest of that night, while Alabama ran roughshod over LSU, I binged on story after story about this, all the while thinking, Wait…what?
As someone who looks back on his time in Columbia with great fondness, who didn’t know what a racial microaggression was until I entered the world of corporate journalism, I found it difficult to metabolize what was going on back on campus without feeling something between naiveté and guilt. Call it existential yearning—a state that Kevin Bacon memorably gave voice to in the movie Diner when, as Timothy Fenwick, Jr., he sat back and wondered, apropos of nothing, “Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?”
It’s not as if I was blind to how race framed the MU tradition. After all, the state in which this august institution resides was a border state during the civil war. The varsity’s mascot takes its name from a home guard militia. Until joining the SEC three years ago, Missouri enjoyed a long running rivalry with the University of Kansas that was a bloodless proxy battle over slave ownership. The fact that Missouri was on the wrong side of history in this dispute always made it hard to muster genuine hatred for the Jayhawks. Still, it could be worse. At BYU, black students are the real one-percenters. Also, don’t even get me started on college sports in general and the SEC’s football legacy more specifically.
There was never a time where I did not understand Missouri—the state, the university—to be a place that was seemingly always at war with itself. When George W. Bush narrowly won the state during the 2000 presidential election, this seemed yet more evidence of the state’s inner conflict—a victory for the rural class over Al Gore’s townie supporters in Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia. If you had asked me for the impetus for soul searching during my time in school, I would’ve told you Bush’s first-term victory was it. That we townies nonetheless managed to elect Mel Carnahan to the U.S. Senate a month after he had died in a plane crash while en route to a presidential debate at Washington University didn’t feel like much consolation.
In a quest for deeper understanding, I spent a lot of last week trading notes with members of my old Mizzou cohort. The Bush thing still stands out, but so did other moments. Some, like the many times a respected journalism professor was called a nigger around town and campus, I learned about only after she wrote about it on Facebook. Others, like the time a popular campus-adjacent coffee shop named Osama’s became a target for post-9/11 vandalism, I had clearly compartmentalized. On a campus of 30,000-plus, your universe shrinks in a hurry—just like in the real world.
That’s what makes what’s going on at Mizzou so awesome. In a decade’s time, those alums won’t just be able to remember what happened to or around them. They’ll remember what they did about it: stand on the quadrangle named for the very same U.S. Senator for whom I once cast a protest vote and demand change. In two days, or less time than it seemingly took me to fill my orders at the campus bookstore, Wolfe was out the door and university chancellor R. Bowen Loftin proclaimed himself a lame duck. Talk about express delivery.
History will remember this as a victory for race relations, but that’s not strictly true. Really, racism—systemic, actionable and otherwise—was just the latest grievance in a long list that included the slashing of heath care benefits to grad students and an interrupted partnership with Planned Parenthood. The football team’s involvement was the tipping point.
Now that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, the man who swung the balance, is also retiring at year’s end to fight non-Hodgkin lymphoma, some will be tempted to reduce his stance in solidarity with his team and, by extension, the campus’s aggrieved student and faculty population, as a YOLO moment. And I’d be inclined to agree with those detractors if the coach hadn’t embraced a gay player, Michael Sam, and encouraged Mizzou players to do the same. A year later, we look back on that like it was no big deal. In yet more time, we could well be saying the same about the university’s week from hell.
Not that anyone was keen to delve into current events on Saturday back at Elbowroom. Most of the talk was of the getting-to-know you sort: What year did you graduate? Where are you from originally? What brought you out here?
They were black and white, but mostly black and gold. Some were graduates, others the parents of kids currently in schools, still others friends of grads or Columbia transplants who had drunk the Kool Aid and come back for more. There was Mizzou flare applied to clothing and stories traded about the fun times on campus. There was a rivalry couple: a woman for Mizzou, a man for BYU. (Alas, getting their baby in a Cougars onesie would be the only victory for him that day.) At halftime, there was even a raffle. I won a T-shirt.
After claiming my prize, the talk returned to the game, which Mizzou led 6-3. Some wondered whether this was the game the Tigers would go back to being the team that couldn’t buy a touchdown. (They nearly went the entire month of October without scoring one.) But when the Tigers scored two in the fourth quarter and—gasp—hung on for a 20-16 victory, in spite of so many penalties, Elbowroom erupted into cheers, and then chants of M-I-Z!
Here was the Missouri I remember, a place where a bunch of total strangers could come together, maybe watch the football team do its thing, and really get to know one another. It’s no different for the folks back on campus. Their bonds will be even stronger, as they’ll have been forged in a time of crisis. No beleaguered fan base, not even the Browns’, can compete with that.