There was no football practice at the University of Missouri on Sunday, but the school’s training grounds were far from empty.
Mizzou’s black players had announced a strike the day before—joining scores of student activists demanding the ouster of university president Timothy Wolfe over his alleged failure to stem a wave of racism at the predominantly white school. Of the 35,000 students at Mizzou, 77 percent are white and 7 percent are black, school stats show, while 58 of the football team’s 84 scholarship football players are black.
Instead of putting on helmets, the team posed for a group photo, arm in arm, inside an athletics facility.
“The Mizzou Family stands as one,” head coach Gary Pinkel tweeted Sunday, just after the squad’s strike made national news. “We are united. We are behind our players.”
Faculty staff announced a few hours later that they would also stage a walk out in support of the football team.
Mizzou players have vowed not to play until Wolfe, who has been the school’s president since 2012, is removed.
On Saturday, sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils revealed the players’ picket. “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,’” he tweeted.
“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,” Sherrils added in the post, which contained a photo of 32 black players.
The gambit comes amid months of simmering racial tensions at the Columbia, Missouri, campus. Minority students say they’ve been targeted with continuing slurs and harassment—and that the response from the predominantly white university has been tepid.
Last month, a swastika scribbled in human feces was found in the restroom of Gateway Hall, a dorm offering gender-neutral suites and bathrooms that is supposed to be a “‘gateway’ for the future of inclusive living,’” the Residence Halls Association president said.
It was the final straw for 25-year-old Jonathan Butler, an African-American grad student aligned with Concerned Student 1950, the student group leading protests at Mizzou. The group is named after the year the university first admitted black students. Soon after, Butler went on a hunger strike, vowing to continue until Wolfe steps down. Sunday was the seventh day without food for the grad student, who is subsisting only on water.
“I’m in this because it’s that serious. We’re dealing with humanity here. And at this point, we can’t afford to continue to work with individuals who just don’t care for their constituents,” Butler told CNN.
“Regardless of what happens with my life, people are really starting these conversations that are necessary, and that’s what’s going to bring about the change in the long term,” he added.
Butler told The Washington Post last week that he was willing to die for the cause.
“I already feel like campus is an unlivable space, 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,” he said.
Coach Pinkel and athletics director Mack Rhoades issued a statement backing Butler and the players. “Today, Sunday, there will be no football practice or formal team activities,” they said. “Our focus right now is on the health of Jonathan Butler, the concerns of our student-athletes, and working with our community to address this serious issue.”
“After meeting with the team this morning, it is clear they do not plan to return to practice until Jonathan resumes eating,” they continued, adding that they will provide further comment Monday afternoon.
Some players declined to speak to reporters waiting outside the athletics training center, with tight end Jason Reese reportedly saying, “We all made this decision as a team, to not talk to the media.”
Still, the players weren’t staying off social media. “Never thought I would be in place or time like this to actually make a difference,” running back Russell Hansbrough tweeted.
He later added, “There is no racial tension between the team and coaches. We are a FAMILY. Just to make that clear.”
Wide receiver Keyon Dilosa tweeted, “This is so much bigger than football for us #ConcernedStudent1950,” a hashtag referencing the student group leading protests at Mizzou.
For his part, university president Wolfe responded Sunday but ignored calls to resign.
“It is clear to all of us that change is needed, and we appreciate the thoughtfulness and passion which have gone into the sharing of concerns,” Wolfe said in a statement. “My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters.”
“We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change. We will share next steps as soon as they are confirmed,” he added.
The athletes aren’t the only ones protesting Wolfe. Graduate school workers called for a walkout on Monday and Tuesday, and some students have been camping out in tents on the campus quad, refusing to leave until Wolfe is gone.
A Change.org petition calling for Wolfe’s walking papers had garnered more than 5,569 supporters as of late Sunday.
The school’s racial strife made national headlines in September, when student body president Payton Head’s response to a racist attack went viral.
“Last night as I walking through campus, some guys riding on the back of a pickup truck decided that it would be okay to continuously scream NIGGER at me,” Head wrote on Sept. 12. “I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society. For those of you who wonder why I’m always talking about the importance of inclusion and respect, it’s because I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.
“Many of you are so privileged that you’ll never know what it feels like to be a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and be called a terrorist or a towel head,” Head continued. “You don’t have to think about being transgender and worrying about finding a restroom where you can go and not be targeted for violence…
“If you see violence like this and don’t say anything, you, yes YOU, are a part of the problem,” he said.
The shocking, hateful episodes on campus didn’t end there.
On Oct. 5, an inebriated white male student allegedly mounted the stage of a Legion of Black Collegians homecoming royalty court rehearsal and began spouting the N-word. The student was “moved from campus,” the Columbia Tribune reported.
Black student activists also say they faced harassment on Oct. 10, when they peacefully blocked the homecoming parade. They surrounded Wolfe’s car, but he refused to speak with them. Instead, the protesters claim, Wolfe’s vehicle hit one of their members.
Wolfe later apologized for his reaction during the parade, saying in a statement, “had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Last week Friday, two female students said a drunken white man hurled a racial slur at them on a campus walkway. As a group of “four young Caucasian men” passed the women, one shouted, “You’re a n—-r!”
“We walk around this campus knowing that on any given day, there will be another racial issue,” sophomore Alexis Ditaway tweeted of the incident. “We go to classes with our white peers knowing that not only will they never understand our struggles, but many of them will refuse to try. We go to a university where the only place many of us feel comfortable is in a Black Studies class.”
That day, activists corned Wolfe again and apparently asked him about “systematic oppression.”
“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe says in the video.
“What do you think systematic oppression is?” a woman is heard yelling.
Wolfe begins to respond, “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success—” before he is cut off by the raucous crowd.
“Did you just blame us for systematic oppression, Tim Wolfe? Did you just blame black students?” a woman asks.
Butler, who also circulated the video, wrote of the incident: “This is his response to students AFTER sending out his lackluster, insincere, and extremely late apology letter to #ConcernedStudent1950…This is not the leadership the UM System needs. No excuse.”
On Monday, the governing body of the University of Missouri system has scheduled a special meeting—part of it closed to the public—to deal with the school’s handling of race matters.
Meanwhile, the Forum on Graduate Rights is calling for graduate workers to walk out on Monday and Tuesday. “Removing Tim Wolfe will not be the end of our fight, and we will continue to organize as workers to ensure a more equitable University community,” the group said in a statement.
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