COLUMBIA — A man was hungry and the Missouri football team wanted him to eat. On Monday, he ate. It appears the football team’s influence made it happen.
The Tigers’ football team flexed its political muscle this weekend when the team announced a boycott of football activities until graduate student Jonathan Butlerhad his hunger strike ended. Butler wouldn’t eat until University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe stepped down. Monday morning, he did.
Football players lifted their strike Monday after they got exactly what they wanted. If it wasn’t already clear in a town that presses pause on football Saturdays, the Missouri football team showed Monday how much influence it holds in university decisions and politics.
“They decided to be leaders in this issue to save a life of a fellow student,” athletics director Mack Rhoades said. “We understand not participating in an athletic activity is an extreme measure.”
The decision to protest backed university administrators into a corner, sports business experts said. The prospect of the Missouri football team refusing to take the field pushed administration’s hand.
“I tend to think, with all due respect to the person having the hunger strike, we have to expect if athletes are going to take a stand that’s what people are going to notice,” said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University. “We’ve made college athletes larger than life. We’ve made them the most important thing on campus.”
Wolfe’s resignation came a week after Butler declared his hunger strike and only 38 hours after black football players announced their strike Saturday night.
“It’s a terrible feeling to have it be the football team that makes the students’ voice be heard,” tight end Jason Reese said earlier Monday.
But that’s the reality.
Missouri football players perhaps set a precedent for future protest movements on campus. Student athletes refusing to take the field over any issue could ruin a university’s reputation.
A strike over racist incidents on campus cast a dark shadow over MU, said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association.
“The university’s public image hangs in the balance,” he said. “Think about it. If you’re a black athlete and you have offers from four different colleges, how comfortable are you going to be if the university doesn’t handle this issue?”
Missouri would have been responsible to pay Brigham Young University $1 million if the Tigers had to cancel. Rhoades told media that was not a pertinent issue to his department, which was more concerned with the health of a fasting student.
Rhoades called a meeting of student athletes Monday night at the Hearnes Center to explain the department’s decision making to back the football team.
Rhoades wanted to avoid infighting among athletes, an athlete at the meeting said, though some athletes were displeased the majority of the football team did not attend.
This was, after all, the football team’s moment.
It started Wednesday when freshman receiver J’Mon Moore met with Butler and told him black players on the team were considering striking if Wolfe didn’t leave office. By Saturday, all of the team’s black players announced their stance and the rest of the team backed them Sunday morning, pledging not to play or practice.
“That was a great feeling, knowing that our coaching staff was behind us and our team was behind us,” Moore said. “That was just the best feeling in the world. For us to be able to come together in agreement and see that something as special as this is important and everybody’s eyes were on our team is just a great feeling.”
“We matter and we have a voice,” safety Anthony Sherrils said. “Really, when we stand behind something and feel strongly about it, we’ll get it done.”
Missourian staff writer Aaron Reiss contributed to this report.