COLUMBIA, Mo. — An unforeseen hug happened Tuesday. It happened at the 43-year-old Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri, and it happened between the unacquainted. A 6-foot-3, 235-pound football defensive end conversed with friends, and a 5-foot-4,135-pound female college junior walked up.
“And I walked up and he said, ‘Hey,’ ” said Shelby Anderson, the communications director of the Legion of Black Collegians, a 47-year-old campus organization. “And I said, ‘Hey. Thank you.’ And he said, ‘You’re welcome.’ You would have thought he was family. We hugged like we hadn’t hugged in years.
“And I stepped back and he goes, ‘What’s your name again?’ I said, ‘We’ve never met. I’m Shelby.’ And he was like, ‘I’m Charles.’ And it was just like this connection. And it’s so powerful. It was powerful.”
She paused and repeated, “It was powerful.”
The defensive end is Charles Harris, and the power stemmed from a collaboration that counts as a landmark in college football. On many American campuses, the separation between the college students and the college students who play football has come to seem ever more pronounced. That’s true especially as the sport has mushroomed with television money, as training facilities have grown posh, and as the heightened athletic competition of the 21st century demands rare rigor and gobbles up hours.
At Missouri last weekend, however, football players had volunteered to assist with a general-student cause. On Saturday night, they initiated a boycott of football practices and games in support of those such as Jonathan Butler, the graduate student on a week-long hunger strike, demonstrating for improved campus life for the marginalized. Across the divide between football and the vast otherwise, they had built a fresh bridge — or “a stride toward a bridge,” as Legion of Black Collegians activities director Darius Thurston, a Missouri junior, put it. By Monday morning, university system president Tim Wolfe, whose resignation the demonstrators had sought, indeed had resigned, a $1 million contractual fee blaring if Missouri had been forced to cancel its football game Saturday against BYU in Kansas City.
“Through this experience, we’ve really been able to bridge that gap between student-athletes — in the phrase ‘student-athlete’ — by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture,” senior safety Ian Simon said in a statement on Monday afternoon. “We will continued to build with the community and support positive change on Mizzou’s campus. Though we don’t experience everything the general student body does and our struggles may look different at times, we are all #Concerned Student1950,” a nod to the organization that led the demonstrations.
The involvement of the football team surprised some students, including Anderson, not a football watcher. It didn’t surprise others, including Thurston, who saw it as an organic evolution from conversations he knew in which football players had expressed their concerns about campus life for black students. It both surprised and yet did not surprise Scott N. Brooks, an associate professor of sociology who has written extensively on the experiences of American black athletes. “At this level, to protest about something that was not football, I think that is a spectacular thing,” Brooks said. “I think it is unprecedented” — meaning in college football, not in sports overall, from which Brooks cited Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Brooks also said: “I do think we underestimate the relationship that football players have had with other black students on campus. This is a thing that has been growing as they have been interacting with fellow students who are protesting.”
The fresh reality left a tangle of fresh thoughts in a week that has seen social-media threats against black students and the vandalizing of the sign outside the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, at a school where black students comprise 8 percent of the student body and 65 percent of the football team. For one, both the football players and the involved students are determined that the visibility and clout of football not occlude the whole of the collaboration.
The football players released two photographs from the weekend, made one statement on Monday and receded from the dialogue, explaining, as Simon said, “It’s not about us.”
Those they assisted feel both a great appreciation and a wariness of the message getting lost. “That never should be the highlight,” Thurston said, “because neither the football players nor Jonathan Butler want people to think that they want to be the highlight of what’s going on. They’re all fighting the same fight. They just did it through different avenues. Jonathan Butler did it through his way, the football players did it through their way, and students on campus did it through their way. We were all fighting for the same thing, and this is not about Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike. This is not about the football players.”
To illustrate the divide commonplace around the country, Brooks recalled a story from fall 2012, his first semester on campus. One Monday, he suggested a small field trip for his Introduction to Black Studies class. The 30 students included around four football players and two other athletes, and Brooks had them go to the Memorial Student Union, a vortex of the school at large. “They’re reluctant. They really don’t want to do it,” he said.
They went in and sat down in groups as Brooks watched until about 15 minutes passed, when he signaled them outside. “One of the football players says to me, ‘Frankly, I really don’t like that you had us do this. I felt like we were a bunch of inner-city kids from the wilderness, on a field trip.’ ” They said some students had left, while others failed to give up seats on which sat backpacks.
Brooks reminded the football players that they wore Mizzou clothing that signaled their status as athletes. “How is it,” he said to them, “that two days ago fifty-thousand-plus were cheering for you and Missouri, and you feel like an outcast and you don’t belong in this school?”
But he does believe the separation has narrowed between 2012 and 2015, and he cites a complex bale of factors. Among those, he notes the increased willingness of star athletes such as LeBron James to comment on social matters. He thinks the militaristic, life-and-death approach players often take to football might have made them uniquely inspired by a man (Butler) willing to die for a cause. Foremost, though, he mentions the horde of publicized killings of black men, especially that of 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014, 110 miles away in Ferguson, Mo., in St. Louis County. “That disrupted things,” he said. “That made them think about, ‘I’m a black male, and this is what this means at this moment.’”
Last Saturday morning, Concerned Student 1950 and others had demonstrated during campus tours for prospective students, advocating for a list of demands including action about safety and inclusion on campus, as well as an increase in black faculty. Anderson finished that and reached the Gaines/Oldham Center at “2-ish,” she said. “I remember seeing a group of them [the football players], and they were leaning against cars. And I’m looking over: ‘What are they doing?’”
The meeting would begin around 6, and by then Anderson had gone home. By 7, in gray sweats, she began to cook chili. Her voice felt compromised from the morning demonstration. A friend told her, “The football players, they’re thinking about not playing.” That prospect still exceeded her expectations by a notch.
As she finished preparing the chili, she saw the tweeted photo. She had thought maybe 10 football players at most would participate, but now, “I see a picture, and I see a weak and tired J.B. in the middle,” she said, using their nickname for Butler, and the photo included some 30 players with the message “WE STAND UNITED.” She turned to a friend, reported the astonishing news and began to tweet and retweet. “And within three minutes we were at 500 retweets,” she said. “We had some positive stuff. We had some negative stuff. But most of it said, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Said Thurston: “I applaud them for a lot, because it took a lot for them to risk that, anything that they could have been facing. Once again, I don’t know everything that they were facing, but I know that, even from just a student’s perspective, I’m facing things, and they’re looked at in different ways, so they have more at stake. So I would say yes, they did risk a lot. There’s no telling what their future is like, and what they have to do, what they have to go back home to, but they were able to risk it because they are more than just athletes. They are also African-American students.”
Calls for the rescinding of the players’ scholarships have dotted the comments and emails that have flowed in through the week toward the athletic department and elsewhere, even as the football team’s head coach, Gary Pinkel, maintained the staunch support of his players — days before he would announce his resignation, effective at the end of the season, because of his fight with lymphoma. All commenters, whatever their tenor, responded to a new reality big enough that even Maxwell Little, a graduate student who helped form Concerned Student 1950, said he had struggled to sleep with the thought of it. While it made college football history of a meaningful kind, involved students saw something larger still.
“You see this black unity that is said not to occur,” Anderson said, “and it was like, ‘All right, we’ve got everybody here.’ And the football players came in and it just sealed the deal. Like there’s a huge vault of change, and they kind of came in and closed the door behind it, and it just erupted . . . I hate it and I love it at the same time. I hate it because it was, ‘Mizzou, it should not have taken that for you to change.’ But then I love it because we see, when we unify, what can happen. And it’s scary, but it’s beautiful.”