COLUMBIA — It is a regular part of the Missouri football team’s schedule to meet with media at the beginning of each game week, and sure enough, members of the team spoke to media Monday ahead of their game Saturday against BYU.
But the team has never had a press conference quite like Monday’s.
Two days after black members of the team announced a boycott in support of a graduate student’s hunger strike, the players spoke in front of the campsite of protest group Concerned Student 1950 on Carnahan Quad. By then, University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe had resigned, Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike had ended, and the team had announced its resumption of football activities.
“We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that: a game,” senior captain Ian Simon said at the campsite, reading a prepared statement on behalf of the team. “Through this experience, we really began to bridge the gap between student and athlete in the phrase ‘student-athlete.’ By connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture, we will continue to build with the community and support positive change on Mizzou’s campus.”
The announcement of the team’s boycott Saturday catapulted Butler’s hunger strike, which had begun Nov. 2, onto a national stage. Both Butler and the team said their strikes would not end until Wolfe was removed from office.
“Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power,” sophomore defensive lineman Charles Harris said. “It starts with a few individuals on our team and look what it has become, look where it’s at right now. This will be nationally known, but this started with just a few.”
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said the team’s support was the breaking point in Wolfe’s resignation.
“If it was not for the stance of the football team,” Chappelle-Nadal said after Wolfe resigned, “this would not have happened.”
Director of athletics Mack Rhoades and head football coach Gary Pinkel announced support for the players at a press conference Monday afternoon, but said their motivation was supporting the team and not causing any officials to lose their jobs.
The players chose not to meet with media after Pinkel’s press conference, as they typically do Monday afternoons. Pinkel said that was the players’ decision.
Rhoades and Pinkel said their primary concern was the health of Butler, and they were focused on supporting the players — refraining from aligning themselves with the causes Butler and the players were protesting.
Still, Rhoades and Pinkel did say they believe the campus’ racial climate needs improvement and they hope the athletes can help facilitate that change.
“I think all of us in this room believe that this is not a sports issue,” Rhoades said, “that is a societal issue, and it’s certainly not unique to this great institution.”
Pinkel said the team’s coaches did their regular work Sunday and Monday and the team was to play its schedule by ear as the week went on. He said the staff would have had to decide how many missed practices would lead to the team canceling the game against BYU that’s set for Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
“Is this a situation normal? No, there’s nothing normal about this,” Pinkel said. “There’s absolutely nothing normal about this whole situation. I’ve been a head coach for 25 years and been a coach for 39 years, and this isn’t in Football 101.”
Rhoades said he was cognizant of the money that could be lost if the team broke its contract with BYU, but that it “was absolutely not a focus.” Rhoades said executive associate athletic director Bryan Maggard spoke with a BYU official, and BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe called Rhoades to offer support.
Sophomore receiver J’Mon Moore said the team stuck together during its boycott, while away from official team activities. Though the team’s focus was elsewhere, Moore said it was still hard not to think about the sport.
“Being football players, we can’t just not focus on the game,” he said. “It’s embedded in our bodies, that’s what we do week by week.”
He did not believe Saturday’s game would go unplayed, but hoped the university’s higher-ups would “understand where we were coming from as a football team and hopefully be motivated enough to make a change.”
Safety Anthony Sherrils, the first player to tweet out the team’s support for Butler, said players were aware of the risks of boycotting.
“A lot of guys were ready to lie their scholarships down on the line,” he said. “We were ready. But everyone felt strongly about it.”
Pinkel said the team’s staff explored other options besides striking, such as holding a march on campus or adorning their helmets with a symbol to support Butler.
“We tried,” he said, “and they really wanted to stick with what their plan was.”
The team’s boycott was dismissed by some because of its 4-5 record, saying the players would not have taken the stance if they had more to play for. Moore said that was not the case.
“We’ve got a lot to play for,” he said. “… So it didn’t matter if we were 9-0 or 0-9.”
The team announced in a statement Monday its boycott had ended, less than two hours after Wolfe announced his resignation.
“We were very, very happy,” Sherrils said. “We just wanted Jonathan Butler to eat, and he wouldn’t eat unless Tim Wolfe was gone.”
Pinkel said the players called him Saturday evening with concerns about Butler. A group of players and the Legion of Black Collegians tweeted the photo that night in which more than 30 black players linked arms with Butler in support.
On Sunday, Pinkel said “85, 90 percent” of the team met at the Mizzou Athletic Training Center and discussed the issue as a whole. That morning, Pinkel tweeted out a photo of the whole team with the caption, “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players. #ConcernedStudent1950 GP.”
The public meeting followed Monday, and by the end of that meeting, Wolfe had resigned, chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he would step away from his position, and plans had been announced to improve the university’s racial environment.
“It was monumental,” Sherrils said. “We made a difference and we used our platform to change something.”
Moore called the weekend’s events “legendary,” noting the strong support from his entire team.
“Just knowing that the coaching staff was behind us and our team was behind us,” he said, “that was just the best feeling. For us to come together on an agreement, and see that something as special as this is as important in everybody’s eyes on our team, is just a great feeling.”
An ESPN.com report Sunday night indicated things might not be so cut-and-dried amongst the players. A player who spoke anonymously “because coaches told the team not to talk to the media as they thought the situation ‘would blow over eventually.’” He told ESPN, “As much as we want to say everyone is united, half the team and coaches — black and white — are pissed. If we were 9-0, this wouldn’t be happening.”
Linebacker Michael Scherer, who is white, denied the reports on Twitter, saying “Whoever is speaking against our … Unity as a family and team is not apart of the same family that I am.”
Pinkel compared the scenario to 2014 when Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out as the first openly gay football player in college football.
Pinkel said in both cases, not all players were entirely on board with the cause but still offered their support because it was best for the team.
“Did everybody raise their hand and say ‘I’m in, I’m in’? They certainly did,” Pinkel said in reference to the decision to strike. “But at the end of the day, certainly there were some players that just went along with it, most likely, because it was their football team and their family, and they were going to support them.”
Moore added: “A lot of so-called teams are not teams. You’ve got a lot of selfish players, a lot of ‘me’ players on some teams. But it’s a blessing to be on a team where everybody’s together and everybody really shares the same love for the game and knows that it’s just not about themselves.”
Of course, after a weekend of making headlines, that team now has to go out and play a game. Practice resumes today.
“This team is spirited, man,” Moore said. “We’ve got some guts on this team. … We’re going to go out (today) and practice hard. I mean, I’m thinking we’re going to have one of the hardest practices ever.”