COLUMBIA, Mo. — On the day he met with black players for the University of Missouri’s football team, graduate student Jonathan Butler hadn’t eaten for six days.
The players wanted to know why. Butler told them: The school’s president, Tim Wolfe, had repeatedly ignored concerns of black students. He’d rather starve than attend a school with a leader who condoned racism.
Surprised and angry, the players decided to launch a protest of their own. They wouldn’t practice or play until Wolfe resigned or was removed. They snapped a picture and tweeted it: Thirty black men standing with another too frail to stand on his own.
“They were literally holding me up,” Butler said.
The image did in 48 hours what student activists hadn’t been able to all semester and what black students before them hadn’t been able to do for decades. It put a national spotlight on black students’ experience on mainly white campuses and set off protests around the country. It was a feat pulled off by two groups of students whose paths, before that week, had rarely crossed.
The roots of the protest began decades ago, when the University of Missouri, founded in 1839, enrolled its first black student in 1950. The first black varsity athlete enrolled in 1956.
Those who came behind them have been fighting ever since for an equal environment. The current activist group, Concerned Student 1950, is named for that first student. Today, about 7 percent of the 35,000 students at the state’s flagship school are black. Revenue-generating teams are nearly 63 percent black men.
Butler first saw and experienced racial tension at Mizzou as an undergraduate. In 2008, he said someone wrote the N-word on his dorm door. In 2010, white students scattered cotton balls onto the grounds of the black culture center.
“Things were continuing to be swept under the rug … to the point where there’s so much under there, you trip over it,” Butler said.
When protests erupted in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, last year after the death of Michael Brown, Missouri students got involved to protest disparate treatment of minority communities by police. Butler returned to campus for his final year looking for a way to channel his feelings into action.
Over the next several weeks, Butler said the group tried reaching out to administration officials, recounting to them their experiences as black students, sharing books, YouTube videos and articles about white privilege.
No response. When a homecoming protest and a meeting with Wolfe didn’t satisfy the group, Butler became convinced a hunger strike was his only choice. He consulted a doctor, a pastor.
Did he think he might die? “I was prepared to do so,” he said.
He made his protest public, setting up a tent on The Quad in the heart of campus.
Mizzou sophomore wide receiver J’Mon Moore was driving on campus when he passed near The Quad.
Moore parked his car and began to investigate. He found his way to Butler, who had only seen Moore before playing football on television.
“I just saw someone in need and wanted to help,” Moore said.
When he got home, Moore told his roommate, defensive back Anthony Sherrils, about the strike. They reached out to sophomore defensive lineman Charles Harris and senior co-captain Ian Simon.
Two days passed, and they contacted the activists to meet. For about an hour, the players and the protesters talked. Poole explained despite also being black, the athletes’ college experience was vastly different from that of the average black student.
“Essentially, they’ve been taken away from the community,” said Ayanna Poole, a senior and another member of the activist group. “We used that time to tell them about our experience as students, not as student-athletes.”
The team huddled and came back with a decision. We’re going to support you, they told Butler. That same night, they shared their plans with their coach.
The boycott would have meant more than embarrassment for Mizzou. Not playing would have cost the school at least $1 million. The players’ scholarships could have been in jeopardy. They knew that. They were willing to take the chance.
They were soon joined by the rest of the team, many who remembered supporting Michael Sam, who told the team he was gay in 2013.
Senior center Evan Boehm, who is white, said on a radio show appearance last week that it was initially tough to understand the situation. That’s mainly because he said being an athlete, players are sheltered and “don’t realize there’s bigger issues out there on campus that are happening.”
“I told them ‘I respect you guys and I’m backing you guys 100 percent,’” Boehm said.
News of their boycott reached the highest offices in the state. Among those intervening on Butler’s behalf were officials from the governor to a U.S. senator. Meanwhile, Butler was growing weaker.
On Sunday, the players took another photo — this time with the entire team and their coach, Gary Pinkel, who tweeted it.
“Coach Pinkel, he made a statement and said that he supported us,” Sherrils said. “That’s the only thing we needed.”
The news rippled across the campus the next morning: Wolfe was stepping down. Butler was in a live interview when he heard. “My body was so weak. I almost fainted. I started crying,” he said.
His parents took him to the hospital, where over several days, he would slowly begin eating again to regain his strength.
The players returned to the practice field. At the end of the week, there was a somber announcement: their coach, who had been diagnosed with lymphoma, was leaving at the end of the season.
Missouri defeated BYU 20-16. Now, the team is grappling with how to use their voice going forward in the debate on campus. They team is not sure it is done.
“Through this experience, we’ve really began to bridge that gap between student and athlete … by connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture,” Simon said.
For now, they are content with a place in history.