University of Missouri

One goal of Missouri football players was to save protester’s life

Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades hold a press conference Monday.
Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel and athletic director Mack Rhoades hold a press conference Monday. KansasCity

Missouri sophomore wide receiver J’Mon Moore had heard about graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike.

Driving through campus Wednesday, Moore passed the growing tent city that sprung up on Carnahan Quad amid protests aimed at affecting change for minority students on campus.

Moore wanted to know more, so he parked and sought out Butler, who started a hunger strike Nov. 2 aimed at forcing UM System Tim Wolfe’s removal from office.

“I was looking for John and saw John and we had a pretty good conversation,” Moore said. “I made some promises.”

Upon returning home, Moore and his roommate, sophomore safety and Hogan Prep graduate Anthony Sherrils, discussed ways to show support for Butler.

The idea of a players’ strike in solidarity with Butler and, more importantly, to save his life, since he’d vowed he’d starve to death if necessary, was hatched.

Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades and football head coach Gary Pinkel spoke at a press conference Monday afternoon about the team's player boycott in support of campus protests calling attention to racial incidents on the Columbia campus.

Moore and Sherrils knew they couldn’t go it alone, so they approached senior safety and captain Ian Simon and sophomore defensive end Charles Harris the next morning.

There was never a plan to boycott the Mississippi State game, which took place Thursday evening in a torrential downpour at Memorial Stadium, but the idea gained traction during the next two days.

The remaining teammates, including white players, and coach Gary Pinkel were apprised of the situation Saturday and pledged their support.

“White teammates were aware and, once we explained to them the things that were going on on campus and we informed them of some of the issues, they were definitely on board,” Moore said. “They understood where we were coming from and they supported us.”

Everything reached a critical mass Saturday night when the Legion of Black Collegians tweeted a photograph and a statement — one that was quickly retweeted by Sherrils and other players — announcing that the Tigers’ black football players would not participate in football-related activities until Wolfe was gone.

After a team meeting Sunday, Pinkel and other players, including freshman quarterback Drew Lock, joined the protest.

“I knew from the jump that coach Pinkel was going to support us,” Moore said. “Coach Pinkel supports his players. We’re all his sons, so I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that he was going to stand against us. There’s no way he would have done that.”

Concerned Student 1950, the activist group behind the protests and for which Butler was one of 11 founding members, said they did not reach out to the Missouri football team.

“They took a stand, so we do appreciate them, because they did create this platform for us,” said Ayanna Poole, another Concerned Student 1950 founder. “They saw our fight, they saw that their community needed healing and their community needed change and they took a stand. So, we do appreciate them for that and that was their decision.”

Jonathan Butler and other members of Concerned Student 1950 hold a news conference on the University of Missouri campus. Earlier Monday, Tim Wolfe, president of the university system, resigned from his position amid racial tensions. Butler, a 25-y

Wolfe resigned Monday and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced he’d step down a few hours later, transitioning into a new role as campus research coordinator.

Butler’s hunger strike and the wider protests were slowly gaining national attention on the heels of a string of high-profile racist incidents on campus, but when the football team got involved the story exploded from coast to coast.

Wolfe stepped down within 40 hours and Butler could eat again, but the Tigers’ football team wanted the spotlight to remain on Butler and the causes the protests sought to address:

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“It is not about us,” Simon said, in part, reading a prepared statement on behalf of the MU football team Monday on Carnahan Quad. “We just wanted to use our platform to take a stance for a fellow concerned students on an issue, especially being as though a fellow black man’s life was on the line.”

He confirmed that the players would resume practice in preparation for a game against BYU at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.