One year after protest rocked Missouri, the effects on the football team and university remain tangible
A year ago Monday, the same week that Clemson rolled over Florida State on its way to an undefeated season and Memphis fell to Navy, members of the University of Missouri football team gathered during their bye week. Some players were out of town, but others remained in Columbia, Mo., where an undercurrent of racial unrest had brewed that fall. Students reported repeated use of racial slurs, and an alleged swastika of feces was smeared on a building, but none of the campus incidents targeted football players directly. That mattered little. Last November, in a climate where athletes, especially football and basketball players, exist on a different plane than the average student, Missouri broke the mold.
Four days before the team's Saturday meeting, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler had begun a hunger strike. A member of a campus group that organized under the name Concerned Student 1950, Butler vowed he wouldn't eat until University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe, whom his group deemed ineffective in resolving the racist climate, resigned. Concerned Student 1950 also put forth a list of demands asking for a number of initiatives related to racial awareness and inclusion that they hoped the university would adopt.
Several football players met Butler last fall and were friendly with members of his group. As Butler's hunger strike persisted, the team called its meeting, and after discussing the impasse between the university and the graduate student, more than 30 players announced they would boycott football activities until Wolfe resigned. By Sunday, they'd clarify their message: They were boycotting until Butler ate, period, acting in support of a peer rather than to directly push administrative action.
Also on Sunday, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel released a statement supporting the players who spoke out and confirming the team would not practice until Butler ate. With Pinkel's support, the players' actions gained clout, and within 72 hours, Wolfe had resigned and the team had returned to football.
But for such a brief disturbance, the process the football players set in motion last fall has had long-lasting ripples. In many ways, Missouri is still reeling. According to data the school released in August, enrollment for the fall 2016 semester was down 8% compared to fall 2015, and the backlash to the school's handling of the boycott and protests—as well as the leadership vacuum it created—are in large part to blame for that drop. Anticipating that decline and a decline in donations, interim chancellor Hank Foley mandated a hiring freeze and instructed a 5% cut to the university's budget for the fiscal year that began in July, projecting a $32 million shortfall.
These are the tangible effects of last fall, the ones that hit closest to home for the university. But on a broader scale, it's still hard to say what exactly that team's legacy is to Missouri, or to college football as a whole.
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On Saturday, Missouri lost its 11th straight SEC game, falling 31–21 to South Carolina. More than halfway through the 2016 season, the Tigers are 2–7, on pace for their worst record this century. A year ago, few would have predicted this sharp of a downturn or the turnover within the athletics department and the school's leadership. Pinkel, who coached the Tigers for 15 seasons, revealed his cancer diagnosis days after the boycott, resigned after the season and now works as an ambassador for the school. Mack Rhoades, then Missouri's athletics director, bolted for Baylor, of all places, in July; the school hired his replacement, Jim Sterk, from San Diego State in August. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down during the protests, and his position has yet to be filled; Foley has been in office since last November. And, after a nearly yearlong search, the university filled Wolfe's post earlier this month with Mun Choi, the former provost at the University of Connecticut.
Wolfe became the man at the center of Concerned Student 1950's vitriol in part because of his stature but also due to perceived inaction on his part. By October, students had begun to protest racial incidents on campus, and one such event was scheduled for the homecoming parade on Oct. 10. During that march, protesters blocked Wolfe's car, and he failed to acknowledge them. Ten days later, Concerned Student 1950 issued its list of demands. The group met with Wolfe on Oct. 26 but did not come to an agreement, and on Nov. 3, Butler began his hunger strike.
While Missouri's campus in 2015–16 was 77% white and 7% black, 69% of the school's scholarship football players were black, compared to 48% of the team as a whole. Without question, the players' actions, led in large part by safeties Ian Simon and Anthony Sherrils, receiver J'Mon Moore and defensive end Charles Harris, expedited the university's response to Butler. The team was scheduled to play a neutral-site game against BYU the following Saturday in Kansas City, and to forfeit would have cost Missouri $1 million as well as a massive PR hit.
Within hours of the announcement of the boycott, public opinion was divided on the players' actions; for every message of support for using their platform to spur change, there was another criticizing the men for acting beyond the scope of their (unpaid) jobs. The next 72 hours, Simon said in an interview Friday, were the most stressful of his life. "It was very eye-opening and enlightening," he added. "I got to see the world for what it was a little more firsthand, a little more realistically. I got to see things through a different lens, and a lot of people's true colors. I got an insight into how the world thinks."
That Monday, not hours after the team's boycott began, Wolfe resigned, ending Butler's hunger strike. In the first interview he's given since leaving the university, the former system president and Columbia native told Sports Illustrated he did so as worries mounted about violence on Missouri's campus. "I could not live with myself if I allowed that to happen," Wolfe said. "The FBI was there over the weekend, and the highway patrol, and they were tracking some bad characters that were in Ferguson. They were professionals; they weren't students. … I was faced with prioritizing my own interests… and we were making significant progress—at the expense of what? At the expense of a student getting killed, or students getting killed? The university going up in flames? The national guard on campus? I felt I had no choice."
But for the football team, Wolfe's resignation was hardly the last straw. The boycott left the group energized and drained, proud of maintaining what Simon describes as a unified message but also upset at the backlash. Pinkel's support meant the world to his team, but by allying himself with its cause, the coach invited criticism. "It was so hard," Simon says of watching fans turn on Pinkel. "I honestly kind of felt like I let coach Pinkel down because of all the negative feedback he was getting. Talk about [taking Missouri] from the bottom to the top. This man took us to SEC championship games. This man has done so much for this university and this state, and to see people turn on him because he was supporting his players, it really hurt me."
Then, barely four days after the boycott lifted and 24 hours before the team was set to kick off against BYU, Pinkel revealed he'd been diagnosed with lymphoma. Though the disease was in check, he said, he planned to retire at the end of the season. The timing was bizarre, but according to Wolfe, it was forced, the result of further dysfunction among the university's leadership. According to Wolfe, who went on the record confirming thoughts that have circulated in Columbia for nearly a year, Pinkel planned to coach the rest of the season before announcing his retirement, and members of the school's board of curators were aware of the arrangement. "Then the board leaked that he had cancer," Wolfe said. "The board leaked way too many things. So they leak it."
Although the Tigers beat BYU on Nov. 14, they fell to Tennessee and Arkansas in consecutive weeks, finishing the year 5–7. Even so, Mizzou was in line for a bowl berth because only 75 of the 80 teams needed to fill the 40 bowls won six games last year. Rhoades declined the berth on behalf of the program. Instead of playing in December, Missouri would focus on replacing Pinkel, which it did with former Missouri linebacker Barry Odom, who'd served as an assistant coach for the team from 2003–11 and as its defensive coordinator in 2015.
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Scott Brooks is a former associate professor of sociology and black studies at Missouri, where he taught from 2012 through the 2015-16 school year. Not long after arriving in Columbia, he said in an interview last year, he began to notice the connections black football players at the school made with the city's greater black community. He also believes that for many athletes from Missouri, the months of conflict in Ferguson in 2014 bear an extra significance. That's why he wasn't surprised when the team announced the boycott. "While their core identity is as an athlete," he said, "they were reawakened to the fact that yeah, they have privilege, but they're still a black male."
"I see it as a blessing and a curse," Brooks continued. "The blessing is that it helped to really bring to light that there are issues here. What did the black football players actually win? I mean, they gained the publicity, but if you end up getting dismissed, if you're a freshman or a sophomore, [a potential new school] may think that you're now a problem athlete. If you're going into the [NFL] draft, we know how owners and the NFL are about protecting the shield. Well the question is: Does this hurt these athletes? I can see it going both ways."
In the 2016 NFL draft, three players from Missouri were picked in the fourth and fifth rounds. Center Evan Boehm went to Arizona as the 128th pick, guard Connor McGovern went to Denver at No. 144, and linebacker Kentrell Brothers went to the Vikings at No. 160. Of the most vocal players in the boycott, only Simon, who served as a sort of PR coordinator and spokesperson, was eligible for the draft. Despite participating in Missouri's pro day and speaking with several NFL teams, he went undrafted and unsigned.
Simon now works as a custom suit salesman in Dallas, and looking back on the boycott, he said the team would do it again in a second. "I'm very proud of the fact that we as some young men, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old, there were no missteps," he said. "There was no stumble. We had a plan, and it couldn't have gone any better."
Boehm said at the NFL combine in February that he felt the team handled the boycott well. "I don't think people were used to seeing college athletes make a stand for something they believe in," he continued. "People didn't realize that college athletes are human too, and we are people too. Did it bring a bad name to Missouri? Maybe in some people's eyes. … I'm not saying every team should go on a boycott. But we are human, and we do have feelings, and yeah, we're out there playing football and trying to make a living for ourselves, but there's somebody inside those pads."
And Boehm was right; what Missouri did was unique. It was calculated, coordinated and executed seamlessly. The actions were purposeful, hardly an advertisement in holding a school hostage for petty demands. If anything, it proved that even near-perfect execution for a cause of such magnitude can still have its obstacles and dissenters. Wolfe said he received a letter from a black player who supported him, and ESPN quoted an anonymous white player saying the locker room was divided over the boycott, though not necessarily along racial lines. Another anonymous player told Sports Illustrated last November that many players didn't fully understand the team's objectives that Saturday night or even Sunday, when news of the boycott spread. Still, the team did present a largely united front by streamlining its communication and instructing players to rely on leadership to give interviews. "You better know what you're talking about," Simon said, "because one misstep, one misquote, and you're drowning."
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During the boycott, Simon took on the role of devil's advocate, playing out every potential reaction to a proposed action. Recalling those days, he said he and his teammates developed a sense that it was them against the world, especially as the backlash gained strength. More than anything, they felt alone, until the text messages began rolling in. Players at schools across the country, often high school teammates of Missouri players, pledged unequivocal support. "That was very encouraging," Simon said, "especially when s--- really started to hit the fan… just the fact that we knew they had our backs, and that if something was to go down, we wouldn't be the last ones to be heard." As the first college team to undertake a movement of those stakes, Simon and his teammates had no idea what consequences they might face, although they went into the boycott fully aware of the spectrum of attention they'd garner, for better or for worse.
The situation at Missouri was also unique in its language. From the outset, the players were adamant they didn't want to be the story. Theirs was an adopted cause. They saw it through until Butler ate, but they aligned themselves with his health and safety rather than with Concerned Student 1950's greater list of demands. When the boycott ended, the team returned to football, having promised Pinkel they'd devote themselves with the same all-consuming attention they had before. And though some players kept in touch with Concerned Student 1950, the group began to splinter by springtime and is inactive this fall. Butler disassociated himself after the hunger strike and held several speaking engagements, but he's made no news since last spring, when Heat Street, a conservative website, unearthed unflattering videos of him discussing drugs and talking insensitively about women.
That said, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune, the university continues to work toward some of Concerned Student 1950's demands, namely an increase in black faculty, a 10-year plan to better retention rates for marginalized students and an uptick in the number of minority counselors at the Student Counseling Center.
Still, for all the dysfunction at Missouri that the players' boycott brought to the forefront, it did raise the stakes for schools and athletes everywhere. Universities can't count on their most prominent and powerful students to hide behind their helmets, and athletes now have a precedent for how to spur change as well as an idea of the risks they run in doing so. For fans, the boycott called into question their priorities: Do wins and losses matter most, or do sports count for something beyond that? And is support contingent upon agreement with athletes whose opinions on matters of race and class and politics were, before the boycott, largely unknown?
Last winter, Simon was training for his pro day in Dallas, and one night, he wore his old black and gold sweats to dinner with his father. As the spokesman for the boycott, Simon had become its most recognizable aside from Butler, but after leaving campus, that notoriety faded. That night, though, a Missouri graduate happened to be sitting in the same restaurant. While Simon and his father ate, the man approached them. He recognized Simon from television, he said, and he explained that he was also a Tiger.
Then he shook Simon's hand and told him how proud the team had made him of his alma mater during those three days last November.