Nov 10, 2015 12:33 AM
Missouri players say protest shows athletes have power
The Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) Unrest on the Missouri campus brought on by dissatisfaction with the way the president of the university system handled complaints about racism had been brewing for months.
It took only two days after the football team joined the protest and threatened to stay off the field until a black student protester ended his hunger strike for the target of their boycott to be gone.
"Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power," Tigers defensive end Charles Harris said Monday. "It started with a few individuals on our team and look what it's become. Look where it's at right now. This is nationally known, and it started with just a few."
The Missouri team's stand was credited with escalating the protest about long-simmering tensions about race and other student welfare issues on campus. It was a serious threat with financial implications: The Missouri athletic department faced a $1 million dollar payment to BYU if it had to back out of their game.
The president of the University of Missouri system, Tim Wolfe, quit Monday morning and said he took full responsibility for students angered by what they saw as indifference to racial tensions at the flagship campus in Columbia. With Wolfe's resignation, Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his weeklong hunger strike.
And almost as swiftly as they started the football strike, the team backed away from the spotlight.
The players insisted they were just a few voices in a larger protest. They skipped a news conference with all the media they brought to campus in favor of a rally with classmates. Practice resumes Tuesday. The game Saturday will go on. But there was no denying how quickly the campus debate changed once the team got involved.
A few talked to a group of reporters gathered at Carnahan Quad, where student protesters had built a small tent city over the weekend.
"We just wanted to use our platform to take a stance as fellow concerned students on an issue that has special meaning as a fellow black man's life was on the line," senior defensive back Ian Simon said. "We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that a game. Through this experience we really began to bridge the gap between student and athlete, and 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."
Coach Gary Pinkel said a group of players came to him on Saturday night after they had met with Butler and told him they were deeply concerned about Butler's health. He listened.
"A young man's life, Jonathan Butler, his life was at stake," athletic director Mack Rhoades said during a news conference with Pinkel. "That was real for our student-athletes. That was real for our young men who compete on our football team who maybe have never, ever dealt with that. So our student-athletes decided to get involved, and quite frankly, simply, we supported them. They decided to be leaders on this issue. To save a life of a fellow student."
Late Saturday night a group of about 30 players of color announced the boycott on Twitter. On Sunday, Pinkel gathered the entire team and they all decided to support their teammates.
"I'm not naive to think that internally there were players that put their hand up and said I'm in, but are really in just because of the team. Just because they care about their teammates," Pinkel said.
Pinkel said his support of his players should not be taken as support for the ouster of Wolfe.
"I got involved because I support my players and a young man's life was on the line," Pinkel said.
Rhoades and Pinkel said they were not concerned the threat of a strike would set a precedent for future player boycotts.
"All of us, our coaches, our staff, our student-athletes, we understand that not participating in athletic activities is an extreme measure," Rhoades said. "By no means do we believe that this is an ideal way to invoke change or answer all of our problems."
In this case, though, there was no doubt it made a difference.
"As a football team we are here to support the movement," receiver J'Mon Moore said, "and use our platform to make a difference."
Freelance writer Jade Washburn contributed to this report.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoAP