COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri receiver J’Mon Moore decided to visit the protesters who had built a tent city on Carnahan Quad, demanding that the university pay attention to their complaints about racism.
He had to do more. When he got home, he told his roommate and teammate, Anthony Sherrils, that he wanted to support Jonathan Butler, the grad student on a hunger strike in an effort to get the president to step down.
Moore and Sherrils spoke to defensive back Ian Simon and defensive end Charles Harris and the push to support Butler began to spread. By Saturday night, they were in front of their coach, wanting to launch a plan to strike until the president was gone.
Later that night, the protest was on. Thirty black members of the football team appeared in a tweeted picture with their arms linked with Butler and a statement that said they wouldn’t play or practice until the president was out of office. On Sunday, coach Gary Pinkel joined them, tweeting another picture of coaches with their arms linked together.
“I’m talking to guys who have tears in their eyes and they’re crying,” Pinkel said. “And they asked me if I’d support them, and I said I would. I didn’t look at consequences … it was about helping my players, and supporting my players when they needed me.”
By Monday the president was gone. And the team earned a place in history for accelerating a movement that other students had been working on for months.
“Our plan was to use our platform to make a difference and stand behind Jonathan,” Moore said. “That’s what we did at the end of the day.”
It was an extraordinary declaration of solidarity coming at a time when the leaders of college sports are adjusting to more empowered and outspoken athletes than they’ve seen in years. Emboldened by court victories against the NCAA, student athletes are also more vocal than ever, thanks to social media.
By refusing to play, the athletes risked losing their scholarships. But that move would have been risky for the athletic department. In the short-term, Mizzou would have risked gutting its roster with three more games to play and subjecting the remaining players to humiliating losses and potential injuries.
In the long-term, outsiders and potential recruits could have seen the school’s actions as a betrayal of the players. Some players would have transferred, and Missouri football would have been set back for years.
With their coach behind them, the players put the university on notice for more than $1 million in costs if the game against BYU had to be called off. They also had the strategic advantage of being the faces of the main revenue engine for a school in one of college football’s wealthiest conferences.
“These black football players understood that they have the power,” said Shaun Harper, executive director for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “That is so rare. I don’t know another class of black people on a university campus that has as much power as these guys. … Not in our modern history have we seen black students collectively flex their muscle in this way.”
Harper authored a 2013 study on black male athletes and racial inequities in Division I sports. According to the study, blacks make up 63 percent of Missouri’s football and men’s basketball players, but less than 3 percent of the total undergraduate population.
Because they are often sheltered and controlled within athletic departments, black student-athletes aren’t always aware of their power, Harper said.
“Hopefully, this situation raises their consciousness about their authority,” he said. “If black men on these teams and at other places that are like Mizzou do what these guys just did, it could be a form of activism that procures lots of benefits for them as well as for the black student collective they represent.”
The independence showed after the president’s resignation, as Pinkel held a news conference while his players were elsewhere: Out on campus, among other students celebrating Wolfe’s departure, and issuing their own statement.
“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,” Simon said. “We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that — a game.”
Harris stood nearby, wearing a T-shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the words uttered by Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a police chokehold in New York City in 2014.
“Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power,” Harris said. “It started with a few individuals on our team and look what it’s become. Look where it’s at right now.”
The rise of the empowered college athletes goes beyond race but there is no denying black athletes have been leading figures in some of the most significant recent examples.
Two seasons ago at Grambling, a historically black school, players refused to play a game against Jackson State because they were upset about the firing of a coach, long bus trips to games and poor facilities. The university then committed more than $30,000 to make improvements to the weight room.
Last year, football players at Northwestern, led by quarterback Kain Colter, tried to unionize team members. Colter’s efforts ultimately failed, but many of the benefits the movement sought — guaranteed four-year scholarships and athletic scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance — are now a reality across wide swaths of Division I.
In March, Oklahoma’s football team refused to practice for a week after members of the local Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter were caught on video singing a song that used a derogatory term for black people and referenced lynching.
Sooners linebacker Eric Striker, who is black, responded with an angry call for change and became a de facto spokesman for the team. Striker’s teammate, center Ty Darlington, said he’s not sure what would have happened if the SAE incident had occurred during the season, like Missouri’s situation.
“Thankfully, it never came down to us having to decide whether we were going to play games or not. But if it would have, that would have been such a difficult decision,” Darlington said. “And I can’t say for sure what would have happened.”