Missouri didn’t have a game Saturday, but the football program still made major news when sophomore safety Anthony Sherrils tweeted that the team’s black players have gone on strike.
Sherrils tweeted: “The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.’ 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.”
Those words were accompanied by a picture of a group of black football players linked in arm in arm as a show of solidarity. Forty-one of the 58 players on Missouri’s offensive and defensive depth charts are black.
The Tigers’ next game is Saturday against Brigham Young University at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and canceling it could cost the school millions. Missouri won the SEC East title in 2013 and 2014 but is unranked this year with a 4-5 record.
Head football coach Gary Pinkel promptly expressed solidarity with the black players on Twitter by posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet read: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
President Tim Wolfe gave no indication he has any intention of stepping down, but agreed in a statement Sunday that “change is needed” and said the university is working to draw up a plan by April to promote diversity and tolerance.
For months, black student groups have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white, 35,000-student campus. Tensions flared during the homecoming parade Oct. 10 when black protesters blocked Wolfe’s car in an unsuccessful attempt to talk to him.
An athletics department spokesman told The Star via text message, “The department of athletics is aware of the declarations made tonight by many of our student-athletes. 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.”
Wolfe, who is president of the University of Missouri system, has come under fire in recent months for his response, or lack of response in some cases, to a flurry of racist episodes on the Columbia campus.
Missouri Students Association President Payton Head, a black student from Chicago, jumpstarted a conversation about race at Missouri in mid-September when his Facebook post about being berated with racial epithets went viral (Editor’s warning: Link contains explicit content).
As more students came forward with similar stories, black students organized a rally, while MU’s administration sat largely silent for several days.
An Oct. 5 incident, when an inebriated white male student stumbled onto the stage and spewed epithets as members of the Legion of Black Collegians rehearsed a homecoming skit, put racism on Missouri’s campus back in the spotlight.
MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin immediately denounced the incident, but tensions continued to simmer.
During MU’s homecoming parade Oct. 10, several black students calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, named to reflect the year the university accepted its first black student. Graduate student and football team member Jonathan Butler and other members of this group surrounded Wolfe’s car and shouted chants, demanding to have marginalized voices heard, until Columbia police removed them from the parade route.
Butler has since gone on a hunger strike, which entered its seventh day on Sunday, vowing not to eat until Wolfe steps down or is fired. He’s expressed a willingness to die from starvation if necessary.
Concerned Student 1950 has demanded among other things that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege,” that he be removed immediately, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.
Already, at Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s request, the university announced plans to offer diversity training to all new students starting in January, along with faculty and staff.
When members of the 1950 group blocked Wolfe’s car during the homecoming parade, Wolfe did not get out. He later explained that he was caught off-guard, and he expressed regret for his reaction.
The demonstrators also accused Wolfe’s driver of hitting a protester with the car; the university has not commented on the allegation.
On Sunday, Wolfe said most of the 1950 group’s demands have already been incorporated in the university’s draft plan for promoting tolerance.
“It is clear to all of us that change is needed,” he said.
Wolfe admitted Friday to some missteps in his handling of sensitive issues regarding race on MU’s campus, but it might be too little and too late.
The campus in Columbia is about 120 miles west of Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where tensions erupted over the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown last year by a white police officer.
The school’s undergraduate population is 79 percent white and 8 percent black. The state is about 83 percent white and nearly 12 percent black.
Two years ago, Pinkel and his team made headlines after defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay. Sam came out to his teammates and coaches before the 2013 season, and they agreed to keep his secret until he was ready to go public.
Missouri’s football players joined the protest, using arguably MU’s most visible platform to throw some massive heft behind Butler.
Here are some Tweets from Missouri’s players:
Sophomore defensive end Charles Harris
Senior linebacker Clarence Green
Redshirt freshman cornerback Finis Stribling IV
Associated Press writers Summer Ballentine and Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., and Ralph D. Russo in New York contributed to this report.