The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Missouri football players are going on strike; university president won’t quit

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With the backing of their head coach, football players at Missouri are threatening to stop participating in any football activities until the president of the university system is fired or resigns. In a late afternoon statement, though, the president declined to do so, saying instead that the school would start a systemwide diversity examination.

The players’ action stems from troubling racial incidents on the Columbia, Mo., campus, incidents that Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians believes were poorly handled by Tim Wolfe. The campus-wide group announced its decision, using the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 and a photo of 32 black men on Twitter on Saturday night. Concerned Student 1950, the student activism group leading the protests, is named for the year Missouri first admitted African-American students.

Concerned Student 1950, the student activism group leading protests at Mizzou, held a press conference on Nov. 4. (Video: Ellise Verheyen and Matt Hellman/Columbia Missourian)

“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,'” the tweet read. “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!!!!!”

[Missouri student protests with hunger strike]

On Sunday afternoon, Missouri’s coach, Gary Pinkel, tweeted a photo of the entire team and said, “The Mizzou Family stands as one.”

Late Sunday afternoon, Wolfe issued a statement saying there would be change, but not in the president’s office.

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. My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters.
Clearly, we are open to listening to all sides, and are confident that we can come together to improve the student experience on our campuses. 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.
In conjunction with campus representatives, the university began work on a systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy, plan and metrics for the University of Missouri System as part of my strategic goals (see 1.4.i of the System Strategic Plan) as approved by the Board of Curators in summer 2015.
Our due date for announcing the strategy was April 2016, having allowed for multiple stakeholders (e.g., faculty, staff, students, consultants) across the system to provide input into the plan.
The majority of items listed on the Concerned Student 1950 List of Demands were already included in the draft of the strategy.  While the student list provides more detail and more specific metrics than had been established in the UM System plan, we had anticipated providing specificity and detail to the plan over the coming months.
In the meantime, I am dedicated to ongoing dialogue to address these very complex, societal issues as they affect our campus community.

Shortly before his statement, there was a sense among players who had congregated for a practice that did not take place that they were doing something more important than playing football.

In a statement Saturday night, the school said: “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.” In a text message to the Columbia Missourian, Chad Moller, the associate athletic director/athletic communication, said: “We’re working to get our hands around the facts of the situation right now.”

Racial tensions at the campus have been rising over the last several months. Last month, an excrement-smeared swastika was on a dorm’s new white wall was the catalyst for a hunger strike initiated by Jonathan L. Butler, a 25-year-old graduate student. “I already feel like campus is an unlivable space,” Butler, who is African American, told the Washington Post last month. “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.”

In addition to the swastika incident, Payton Head, the Missouri Students Association president and an African-American, said he was racially abused as he walked on campus. That incident triggered a student protest when university officials did not address it for a week. Last month, a student yelled the N-word at members of the Legion of Black Collegians in a campus plaza while they were rehearsing for a play.

Wolfe met briefly with Concerned Student members Saturday night at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was asked to define systematic oppression, according to the Maneater.

“Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success,” he said. When asked by a protester whether he was blaming African-American students for systematic oppression, the Maneater reports that he walked away.

Sixty of the 124 players on Missouri’s football roster are African-American, according to the Columbia Missourian. Several posted on social media Saturday night, with cornerback Josh Gibson saying that the protest “has nothing to do with our coaches. Our coaches are 100 [percent] behind us. Including the white ones.”

The protest had been brewing since midweek, the Missourian reported.

According to Shelby Parnell and Storm Ervin, original members of Concerned Student 1950, a football player met with the group’s leaders on Wednesday to discuss ways to involve the team. The player, who leaders declined to name, met with Butler.
The player came up with the idea of boycotting football activities, which include practices, games, workouts and team meetings.
Some team members told that player they pledged not to visit the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex until Wolfe is removed.
“They came to us talking about boycotting and what they had already done,” Parnell said. “A lot of that meeting was spent talking about details.”

The Concerned Student 1950 group has a lengthy list of demands of the university.

Football players, unpaid and unrepresented by a union, have protested before, most recently two years ago when Grambling football players refused to board buses for a road trip in the wake of the firing of their coach, Doug Williams.

[Why Grambling students protested]

Other issues at Grambling included lengthy bus trips (1,200 miles round-trip to Kansas City and 1,500 to Indianapolis) and what the players regarded as poor conditions in the football facility. Williams now works for the Washington Redskins.

Missouri, which has lost four games in a row, next plays BYU on Saturday in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.