On Saturday, University of Missouri's football team said it would boycott all football-related activities until university system president Tim Wolfe resigned or was fired. Two days later, Wolfe stepped down.
The football team's involvement added national attention to a growing chorus on campus criticizing Wolfe for his handling of several racially charged incidents on campus. Students, lawmakers and eventually the school’s football team were among those who called for Wolfe to resign.
Missouri's football team may have added national scrutiny to protests against Wolfe's leadership, but the system president's resignation announcement on Monday was the culmination of months of unrest.
Racial incidents lead to calls for change
Since the start of the 2015–16 school year, several racially-charged incidents have taken place at the University of Missouri.
Sept. 12: Missouri Students Association president Payton Head wrote in a Facebook post that racial slurs were yelled at him on campus. The post went viral among Missouri students. Twelve days later, students held a “Racism Lives Here” rally, criticizing the university for taking six days to respond to the incident explained in Head’s Facebook post.
Oct. 1: Students held a second Racism Lives Here rally, demanding the administration take a more active stance on campus racism. On Oct. 5, an intoxicated man yelled racial slurs at members of the Legion of Black Collegians, who were rehearsing for a play.
Oct. 10: A protester at Missouri’s homecoming parade was bumped by Wolfe’s car. The demonstrator was part of a group of 11 students who locked arms in front of Wolfe’s car during the parade. Police removed protesters from the street and threatened them with arrest, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Oct. 20: Concerned Student 1950, the name of the main group of protesters on campus formed after the series of incidents, issued a list of demands, calling for Wolfe’s firing and increased diversity training on campus. Protesters also pushed for better representation of minorities on university staff. The group’s name, Concerned Student 1950, pays tribute to the year black students were first admitted to the school. The university was given eight days to respond to the protesters' demands.
Oct. 24: A swastika is drawn using feces on the wall of a residence hall bathroom.
Oct. 26: Wolfe met with members of Concerned Student 1950. The group says that Wolfe did not commit to a plan addressing the demands of the group.
Nov. 2: Graduate student Jonathan Butler announced he was beginning a hunger strike that will end in either his death or Wolfe’s removal from office.
These high-profile episodes followed several other incidents in recent years. Last December, during unrest in nearby Ferguson, an anonymous person on social media site Yik Yak wrote, “Let’s burn down the black culture center & give them a taste of their own medicine.” In 2010, two white students spread white cotton balls on the lawn of the black culture center; they were convicted of littering. Former Missouri basketball player Kim English also tweeted about a history of racism at the school.
Oppression at my alma mater and in the state of my alma mater occurred LONG before the tenure of this System President.— Kim English (@Englishscope24) November 8, 2015
Professor Cynthia Frisby told NPR a white man called her “n-----.” The Los Angeles Times detailed the experiences of several black students at the university, reporting that a number of minority students have faced explicit racism, such as other students using racial slurs.
Students on campus have been camped out and protesting since the start of Butler’s huger strike, and faculty members also participated in a walkout on Monday in a show of solidarity with students.
Who is Jonathan Butler?
Jonathan Butler is a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Missouri. He became the face of the campus movement to address recurring incidents of racism when he announced in a letter to the university that he would engage in a hunger strike until Wolfe “is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost.”
Butler accused Wolfe of being unresponsive to numerous racial incidents on campus.
When asked why he decided to go on a hunger strike, Butler responded that it was the only way to get the administration to address issue that had gone unanswered for years.
“If you look at the past two years, and all that students have done, black students, brown students, students of color and marginalized students have been fighting and protesting and writing letters and doing all these things over several years," Butler said, according to the Columbia Missourian.
“We, as students of color, marginalized students, we still can't get an answer years later,” Butler said. “It takes these drastic measures for us to be taken seriously, for us to actually be considered humans.”
The football team gets involved
On Saturday, a group of black players on the Missouri football team announced they would not participate in football activities until Wolfe was removed from office. The announcement came in support of Butler’s hunger strike.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’” the group said in a statement. “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 Legion of Black Collegians tweeted a photo of the striking players.
The following day, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel tweeted his support for the striking players and said the entire team was united behind the protest.
The Missouri athletic department eventually released a statement from Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades, announcing the team would hold no practices or formal activities until Butler resumed eating.
The same day Pinkel announced his support for striking players, ESPN quoted an anonymous Missouri player, who criticized the protest and claimed the team was not fully united.
“As much as we want to say everyone is united, half the team and coaches — black and white — are pissed,” the player, who is white, said. “If we were 9-0, this wouldn't be happening.”
The football team wasn't the only high-profile group to call for Wolfe to step down. Several state legislators also called for Wolfe’s removal, including state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, House Higher Education Committee Chairman Steve Cookson and Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty. Missouri governor Jay Nixon issued a statement saying the concerns of students “must be addressed.”
Tim Wolfe resigns
After the football team announced its strike, Wolfe released a statement on Sunday:
“We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change,” Wolfe said. “We will share next steps as soon as they are confirmed.”
On Monday, Wolfe resigned as president of the University of Missouri system at a board of curators meeting.
“I take full responsibility for this frustration. I take full responsibility for inaction that has occurred,” Wolfe told the media at the time of his announcement.
After Wolfe’s resignation, Butler announced he would end his hunger strike. The Missouri athletic department released a statement saying the football team would resume its activities.
Players responded to the resignation on Twitter.
I can't describe the feeling when you realize that God hears you. You've been asking God something for so long and then He gives it to you🙏🏼— Brock Bondurant (@BrockBondurant) November 9, 2015
Mizzou joins other recent college football protests
The Missouri football protest is the second major boycott in Division I football in the last three years. The Grambling State football team went on boycott in 2013, forfeiting a game against Jackson State in October. That boycott was for a much different reason, however, as players were trying to force the school to address unsafe condition in its athletic facilities.
Earlier this year, Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Eric Striker sent a Snapchat video in response to a leaked video of an Oklahoma fraternity’s racist chant. Striker, coach Bob Stoops and other members of the Sooners football team joined demonstrations condemning the actions of the fraternity.
In 1998, members of the UCLA football team proposed wearing black armbands in a game against Miami in protest of a Proposition 209, a 1996 California proposition to ban statewide affirmative action programs. The Bruins ended up not wearing the armbands during the game, after the team and head coach Bob Toledo decided that the football team was not the appropriate outlet for the protest.