In response to mounting racial tensions at the University of Missouri and an administration’s perceived failure to address students’ concerns, members of the school’s football team have threatened to boycott its remaining games, leaving administrators reeling and emboldening student activists who have been demanding a change in leadership.
Anthony Sherrils, a sophomore defensive back for the Tigers, said on social media late Saturday night that a group of African American players — including several starters — were joining an on-campus movement, posting a photograph that included 31 football players alongside a statement that called for school president Tim Wolfe to resign or be fired.
Players say they won’t return to football-related activities until Wolfe is gone, and coaches had no choice but to cancel the Tigers’ practice Sunday, casting doubt on whether Missouri will be able to field a team Saturday against Brigham Young — or in any of its three remaining games.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’ ” Sherrils tweeted, sharing a statement from the activist group Concerned Student 1950. “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’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”
The football team is perhaps the most popular — and certainly most visible — student group on campus, so the players’ surprising decision has drawn the national spotlight to a series of incidents that had cast an ominous cloud over the school’s fall semester and made Wolfe a controversial figure on campus.
Wolfe did not publicly address his job status Sunday but did concede that dialogue is needed at Missouri, the state’s largest school with an enrollment of more 35,000.
“It is clear to all of us that change is needed,” Wolfe said in a statement, “and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and passion which have gone into the sharing of concerns. My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters.”
The campus controversy is unfolding in the backdrop of larger state-wide discussions of race, social justice and cultural understanding. Fifteen months ago, Michael Brown, an 18-year old black man, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked protests, looting and a wide-ranging dialogue that spread across the nation but has been particularly taut across the state of Missouri.
“The demonstrations by these students are a reflection of where things are going nationally in terms of people being fed up with intolerance,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a St. Louis minister heavily involved in the Ferguson protests. “The notion that the administration would not take a very strong no-tolerance policy toward hatred of any kind is just unconscionable. And the response to the absence of that is what you’re seeing now.”
Concerned Student 1950 has organized various demonstrations in the past month, centering on Wolfe’s failure to respond appropriately following what Missouri graduate student Jonathan L. Butler described as a “slew of racist, sexist, homophobic” incidents on the university’s Columbia, Mo., campus.
Butler entered the seventh day of a hunger strike Sunday and has expressed a willingness to die if Wolfe is not removed. He was pictured alongside Missouri football players in the photograph released Saturday.
“I already feel like campus is an unlivable space,” Butler, who is black, told The Washington Post in an interview last week. “So it’s worth sacrificing something of this grave amount because I’m already not wanted here. I’m already not treated like I’m a human.”
The school released a statement Sunday evening from Missouri football Coach Gary Pinkel and Athletic Director Mack Rhoades confirming that no practice or football-related activities took place Sunday. According to the statement, athletic department officials met with players earlier in the day and “it is clear they do not plan to return to practice until Jonathan resumes eating.”
Tensions have been mounting campus since the start of the fall semester. On Sept. 12, Payton Head, the school’s student body president and an African American student from Chicago, wrote in a Facebook post about being called racial slurs “multiple times” during his time at Missouri. On Oct. 5, while members of the Legion of Black Collegians rehearsed a homecoming skit, a white student walked onto the stage and shouted racial epithets. And on Oct. 24, a student scrawled a swastika in human feces on the floor and wall of a dormitory.
“Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement Sunday. “Our colleges and universities must be havens of trust and understanding. These concerns must be addressed to ensure the University of Missouri is a place where all students can pursue their dreams in an environment of respect, tolerance and inclusion.”
A call for change has been mounting for several weeks, and the football team’s surprising protest gave the issue a much bigger platform.
“At this point, I think it is essential that the University of Missouri Board of Curators send a clear message to the students at Mizzou that there is an unqualified commitment to address racism on campus,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an alum of both Missouri and its law school.
The brewing controversy has increasingly focused on Wolfe and his leadership. Last month, during Missouri’s homecoming parade, demonstrators surrounded Wolfe’s car in an apparent effort to get the president’s attention. Police dissolved the demonstration, and Wolfe — sitting in the back seat of a convertible — barely reacted. He has since apologized for his reaction and acknowledged that discrimination is a problem on the university’s campus.
“Racism does exist at our university, and it is unacceptable,” Wolfe said in a statement circulated last week. “It is a long-standing, systemic problem which daily affects our family of students, faculty and staff. I am sorry this is the case.”
On Sunday, Wolfe said school officials are still determining “the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change.” He said the university has been working on a “diversity and inclusion strategy,” which it had intended to announce in April 2016. The plan, he said, would address many of the concerns voiced by Concerned Student 1950.
“We had anticipated providing specificity and detail to the plan over the coming months,” he said. “In the meantime, I am dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues as they affect our campus community.”
Missouri, which lost to Mississippi State on Thursday, did not have a game Saturday. The team has three more games scheduled, including a home date against Brigham Young on Saturday, an evening contest set to be broadcast on the SEC Network. According to the Kansas City Star, the game contract calls for Missouri to pay BYU $1 million if the game is canceled.
Pinkel took to Twitter on Sunday to voice his support for his protesting players. He included a group photo of Missouri football players and coaches, all locked arm-in-arm.
“The Mizzou Family stands as one,” Pinkel wrote. “We are united. We are behind our players.”
Charles Harris, a redshirt sophomore defensive end, tweeted Saturday that the football team is united, and John Gibson, a redshirt junior cornerback, posted he never expected to be part of a racial protest.
“This goes way beyond football,” redshirt freshman defensive back Finis Stribling IV tweeted.
An athletic department spokesman did not immediately respond to an e-mail from The Post, but the department issued a statement Saturday in response to the players’ involvement in the movement.
“The department of athletics is aware of the declarations made tonight by many of our student-athletes,” the statement read. “We all must come together with leaders from across our campus to tackle these challenging issues and we support our student-athletes’ right to do so.”
Wesley Lowery and Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.