Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — College football players often operate in a separate hemisphere from their non-athlete counterparts. With a rigid schedule and their own set of facilities, athletes’ collegiate experiences are far from the norm.
Yet it was a football player’s drive on campus that sparked one of the most high-profile crossovers between student and athlete in recent collegiate history.
When Missouri receiver J’Mon Moore drove by Mel Carnahan Quadrangle after leaving class earlier this month, he noticed tents on the quad and decided to check them out.
“He’s a curious guy,” safety Anthony Sherrils said.
When Moore entered the campsite, he found it housed Concerned Student 1950, a protest group hoping to improve the racial landscape at the university. Moore met graduate student Jonathan Butler, who had begun a hunger strike earlier that week. Butler was refusing to eat until then-system president Tim Wolfe left office for his handling of racist events on campus.
“Once I saw Jonathan, that’s when I really got concerned,” Moore said. “Because he wasn’t in a good state.”
That set in motion the football team’s boycott, which gave Butler’s hunger strike a national audience and likely facilitated the resignations of Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
The team ended its boycott when Wolfe stepped down, and resumed its activities with enough time to prepare for a win Saturday against BYU.
But while the tents are down and the Missouri Tigers news cycle has shifted to thoughts of coach Gary Pinkel’s successor, Moore, Sherrils and other players still expect to be connected to the cause. They communicate regularly with Concerned Student 1950 and said they’d be willing to help in any way they can.
The group reached out to Moore and Sherrils after the successful boycott, and tweeted congratulations after the win against BYU.
“They were just thankful that we actually took the time out of our day to actually do something outside of football,” Moore said. “They understand that we are busy, so they were just thankful that we were interested in some of the things that were going on and that we were there to help them.”
Some of the seeds for the team’s activism were sown in a “Men4Men” meeting in October. Male student-athletes at Missouri are required to attend the meetings, and race was the topic of discussion that night.
“That’s where it first came to our mind, some of the things that were going on,” Moore said. “And then it kind of just had the snowball effect after that.”
The conversation did not end with the meeting.
“Me and J’Mon had a conversation about it that night,” said Sherrils, Moore’s roommate.
Part of the Men4Men discussion centered around informing the athletes about Concerned Student 1950 and on-campus activism — something many players were unaware of.
When the team started its boycott, black members of the Missouri men’s basketball and volleyball team reached out to football players. Moore expects the events of last week to encourage athletes to step outside of the sports-only comfort zone in which they often live.
The team is having ongoing discussions with the school’s athletic department, including director of athletics Mack Rhoades, about improving the culture at Missouri, Moore said. Though he said the players have no concrete aims currently, they hope to fight for improving the rights of student-athletes down the road.
“That doesn’t just happen overnight,” Moore said. “That’s a developing issue.”
Missouri’s boycott sparked race-based discussions at universities across the country, including the University of Kansas, where similar protests have begun.
“Mizzou is not the only campus that has things going on,” Moore said. “I guess we were the first campus to actually stand upon it and actually come together. So I guess we were a good example for other campuses to know that if they … have issues going on, that they can come together and those issues can be solved.”
Of course, no culturally ingrained issue is going to be altered instantly — or even in a week — but in getting involved as more than athletes, Missouri players believe they just might have started something.
“Change is never immediate,” team captain Ian Simon said after Missouri’s defeat of BYU. “It’s never instant. It’s a process, but I feel like we definitely got the ball rolling.”