Reuben Faloughi: “It was actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen to see these not only athletes, but black males standing up to an exploitative system that in many instances is oppressive.”
Out of a mass of jubilant students on Carnahan Quad, all singing and dancing and chanting to the sound of change after UM System President Tim Wolfe announced his resignation Monday, Nov. 9, Ian Simon emerged — clenched fist in the air — victorious. Followed by his band of proud teammates, heads held high in triumph, the Missouri football players had solidified the voice of the student-athlete.
The underlying issues and resolutions rooted in racial tension at MU are complicated, but the events that occurred in a 48-hour span from the evening of Nov. 7 until the afternoon of Nov. 9 prove that one thing is very obvious: The student-athlete is more powerful than ever.
This isn’t just a story of the controversial resignation of a university system president. This isn’t just a story of years of built-up racial tension at a major university. This is a story of a group of student-athletes who used their platform to take a stand for what they believed in, transforming the way many view the role of NCAA athletes on campuses across the country.
“It started with a few individuals on our team and look what it’s become,” sophomore defensive end Charles Harris said in a prepared statement released that Monday. “Look where we are right now. This is nationally known, and it started with just a few.”
This team, no matter how troublesome a season it has had on the field, made an impact. These 2015-16 Tigers — the previous two years’ SEC East champions and one of the nation’s best defenses — became one of the most important athletic programs in the country, not through their play, but through their selflessness.
MU opened its doors in 1839, claiming the title as the first public university west of the Mississippi River. At the time of its founding, the state of Missouri was a slave state, a result of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and therefore, no black students were allowed to enroll at the university.
From 1835 to 1950, 70 African Americans applied but were refused entrance into the university. Finally, in 1950, nine black students were allowed to enroll. Gus Ridgel was one of those nine students.
Despite a shortage of on-campus housing, the black graduate economics student lived alone in a two-bed dorm room. Not a single white student at MU would sleep in the same room as him.
Racism has become more obvious in the past few years at MU, from two incidents, five years apart, of vandalism at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, to three high-profile cases this fall, each a month apart, of black leaders on campus being called racial slurs.
After 25-year-old graduate student Jonathan Butler was bumped by Wolfe’s car at the Homecoming parade during a protest, activist group Concerned Student 1950 held an inconclusive meeting with Wolfe. On Nov. 2, Butler announced his hunger strike protesting Wolfe, and demonstrators began pitching tents on Carnahan Quad to show solidarity.
Within days, a few shoddily pitched tents turned into a sprawling city. Cardboard sheets acted as floors, heat lamps were set up within the complex, and blankets and pillows were donated by supporters.
In the days that followed, Wolfe released a statement giving no indication of stepping down from his position, leaving Butler’s life on the line. But when the football team got involved Saturday night at 8:08 p.m., putting millions of dollars on the line for a Southeastern Conference school and its athletics program, Wolfe was gone within 48 hours.
J’Mon Moore and Butler were in contact throughout the week leading up to Wolfe’s resignation.
After learning of the situation, sophomore wide receiver Moore thought speaking to Butler was the least he could do. He asked Butler how he could assist and ultimately promises were made — presumably a promise to save Butler’s life.
Multiple players on the football team would go on a boycott, and put their season, their scholarships — everything — at risk to make a difference.
“A life is way more valuable than a game,” sophomore cornerback Anthony Sherrils said. “That’s what we were doing it for. A life. We felt strongly about it and felt like we needed to do it. A lot of guys were ready to lay their scholarship down on the line.”
The support from coach Gary Pinkel only added fuel to the fire.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter was proud when he heard the news.
Colter spearheaded student-athlete unionization efforts that sent waves across the national news landscape. In a similar sense, he was impressed by the dedication of the Missouri football players.
“I think it’s big,” Colter said. “I don’t want to downplay how tough it is for players to do it, but the great things I saw out of this case was that none of these players were looked at in a bad light individually. I think it’s awesome (that Gary Pinkel backed up his players). It’s definitely something to be celebrated. You hear these stories about not everybody was on board but for them to even come together in solidarity for that, you know is awesome.”
Racial tension didn’t just start in Columbia. Travel 110 miles east on I-70 and you’ll come upon Ferguson, a town that came under the nation’s microscope in August 2014 when Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Many students at MU, including Butler, participated in racial justice rallies around campus.
Reuben Faloughi is one of the original 11 members of Concerned Student 1950, as well as a former Georgia Bulldogs football player. To him, the Ferguson unrest served as a revelation for the change society needed to see. He began attending protests organized by MU4MikeBrown, and the group’s Student Center “die-in” became the catalyst to his involvement.
“That opened my eyes to activism,” Faloughi said. “It gave me my start. That was the first time I’d ever done any organizing and that was the first time I saw a concerned group who were fighting for the same cause, and for that issue, it was Black Lives Matter and the fight against police brutality.”
There’s a sense of shelter for athletes on campus. The walls of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex provide a barrier, separating the average student experience and the inherently different student-athlete one. Whether it’s the private dining hall, first-class weight room or just a safe haven of sports, sports and more sports, it’s unlike any other building on MU’s campus.
Faloughi knows this life. As a football player at the University of Georgia, the current MU graduate student acknowledged the bubble collegiate athletes live in. At Georgia, Faloughi wasn’t fully exposed to the student culture outside of football.
He didn’t know who was running the school. He didn’t know how the university president treated his or her staff. He didn’t know the campus climate. Faloughi knew his reads, he knew his opponents’ offensive schemes and he knew that he had to win a football game every Saturday.
“I was disconnected from the general student body experience and especially the black experience on campus,” the former linebacker said. “I imagine these problems were there, but athletics puts you in a bubble so you don’t always know what’s going on … You’re really boxed in, so you don’t know what to stand up for.”
The Tigers were in a similar situation. Moore said that for him, it’s hard to keep up with happenings at MU because he’s focused on football “95 percent of the time.”
On Nov. 4, the bubble burst. Moore, a “curious guy” according to his teammates, got out of class and into his car. As he drove through campus, he spotted the tents on Carnahan Quad. He didn’t necessarily know all of the details surrounding the protest, but when he came across Butler, who was on his third day of the hunger strike, he knew he needed to help.
“It struck me once I saw Jonathan Butler,” Moore said. “That’s when I really got concerned, because he wasn’t in a good state.”
Moore and his teammates then knew what to stand up for.
“He wasn’t a friend of mine,” Moore said. “I saw Jonathan, and we had a pretty good conversation, and I made some promises. Then me and (Sherrils) thought of some things, got some things together. Then it started."
Unlike a number of the events surrounding Ferguson, the MU protests have been peaceful. Tear gas doesn’t fill the streets of campus. Police do not wear military gear and patrol the city of Columbia in armored vehicles. The only physical damage is the trampled grass of Carnahan Quad, flattened after over a week of the impromptu camp. New sod was laid Nov. 11, the morning after the campsite was deconstructed.
It’s a new beginning for the lawn and a new beginning for the school.
While Wolfe’s resignation was a “glimmer of hope,” said a member of Concerned Student 1950, the group maintains there’s still work to be done.
“We still have demands and people forget that,” Faloughi said. “There’s a lot more to be done. I think the next step is shared governance. I think, right now, staff, faculty and students aren’t at the table — the president and the chancellor are put into those positions. We live in a democracy, so it makes sense for everybody to be represented in those decisions on top of the other demands that haven’t been met.”
James Gray, a pastor at Second Baptist Church, led a prayer before the Concerned Student 1950 news conference on Traditions Plaza that Monday afternoon. A sea of onlookers — men and women, young and old, black and white — watched from the ascending steps of the newly built plaza. Over 500 people were witness to the news conference-turned-rally.
“Any time you do a protest the right way, you can’t be disrupted,” Gray said. “They stand in unity. As you can see behind you and in front of you, look how many students are here. That’s what Dr. Martin Luther King said. We’ve got to come together as one.”
Butler echoed Gray’s desire to unite, thanking those who supported the cause.
“It would be inappropriate if I did not acknowledge the students who have been fighting for us,” Butler said Monday at the news conference. “This was not Jonathan Butler. This was the Mizzou community for one of the first times I've seen stand together united.”
Yet, not everyone was on board with how the events unfolded on campus in the last few weeks.
Former Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe has been an outspoken critic of the handling of Wolfe’s resignation and the actions taken by the football team and Concerned Student 1950 group. The white, 5-foot-11 receiver played alongside Michael Sam and Blaine Gabbert before a few stints in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots.
Moe, now a football analyst on CBS Radio in St. Louis, disagreed with the way the football team, students on campus and social justice groups went about trying to change the climate on MU’s campus.
When he saw the announcement on Twitter that the team would not play or practice until Wolfe was taken out of office, Moe was shocked.
“It took some time to swallow it and the fact that it was happening,” he said. “It’s a hard thing because in any cause, there’s never been 100 percent of people who agree with the avenue … We all agree that racism is bad and we don’t want anything to do with it in our culture.
“But if you’re a white kid on this team, you’ve got to be scared of death to even speak out against the avenue and say: ‘I want to play football. Let’s try something else.’ And how about the black kids who may disagree? If they don’t disagree with how things are going then they’re not down with the cause.”
Growing up outside of St. Louis, Moe didn’t witness a lot of racism in his upbringing or while at MU. He recognizes that he doesn’t share the same experiences as some of his former black teammates and current Missouri football players, but is disappointed that differing opinions are shot down and judged as racist.
The way Wolfe was forced out of power, in Moe’s opinion, was more of a “termination,” and he said his right to voice an opinion of the other side has been met with condemnation.
“One of my former teammates has to convince me that I’m wrong, that I’m selfish, that I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Moe said. “And all I have to say back to him is: ‘Hey man, we just see this differently. I think there’s merit to the way I’m feeling, just like there’s merit to the way you’re feeling. We don’t have to agree.’”
Moe’s thoughts differ from other former Missouri Tigers. There is an explicitly different experience for the black student-athlete and average black student on any college campus. The endless routines of lifting, practicing, studying, eating and sleeping don’t reflect the normal experience at MU. Laurence Bowers, who is black, played basketball for the Tigers from 2008 to 2013 and never felt racism in Columbia until cotton balls were strewn across the lawn of the black culture center by two white students in 2010.
Bowers said he knows it’s impossible to fully remove racism from any campus or society, but he believes a concentrated effort to combat it is needed. In Bowers’ mind, Wolfe failed to address these issues. The Homecoming parade incident, the inconclusive meetings, the perceived lack of care for the black community — it all got to a point where it was necessary for the president to step down.
“I have heard many people say that you can't place blame on one person for the acts of others,” Bowers said. “However, as the president of a university, that responsibility lies on you fully to protect each and every individual student equally. The only reason why the specific demands of Concerned Student 1950 were put into place immediately, was because of a delay in response to these serious matters.”
The teammate Moe had argued with texted Moe after the news of Wolfe’s resignation swept the country.
“You’re wrong,” the teammate’s message read. “What (the football team and Concerned Student 1950) did was courageous and they had to do it. But I love you anyway.”
The exchange between the two was emblematic of Mizzou Athletics’ and the football team’s unity.
“I love you too, bud,” Moe shot back.
Faloughi, 24, grew up in Martinez, Georgia, where over 75 percent of the population is white, according to the U.S. Census. Just 12.7 percent of his hometown was black, and he was no stranger to racism.
Faloughi mentioned his experience with the N-word, with the Confederate flag and with judgment from teachers. And simultaneously, it’s the interactions he’s had with the Missouri football players that he’s cherished the most.
“I definitely (realized the impact),” Faloughi said. “I think when I was their age, I wouldn’t have understood it, but I think now that I have a different view and now that I’m outside the realm of athletics, I kind of see a bigger picture, so it was amazing to watch. I’m glad I could be there to participate and to witness it.”
Faloughi is a third-year doctoral student working toward a psychology degree. His life experiences have led him to a path of activism, and he hopes to work with black athletes and youth after graduation.
He said he feels his previous status as a student-athlete “helped bridge the gap” for the football team, easing the unconventionality of the situation. All of these things in mind, Faloughi is proud of what he saw from the brave Tigers squad.
“It was actually one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen to see these not only athletes, but black males standing up to an exploitative system that in many instances is oppressive,” Faloughi said.
These players are far from the first, and will be far from the last, to take a stance on a social matter.
In December 1998, UCLA was unstoppable. On a 20-game winning streak, a victory over three-loss Miami would have secured the Bruins a spot in the first-ever Bowl Championship Series title game. But underlying problems, those concerning both societal issues and a lack of cohesiveness within the program, threw the team’s focus off.
The UCLA campus sat uneasy, with many protesting California’s Proposition 209, a constitutional amendment that rid the state of affirmative action, which had been approved two years prior. In the days leading up to the contest against the Hurricanes, a number of Bruin players decided to wear black wristbands to show their solidarity for the cause.
The efforts were spearheaded by defensive back Larry Atkins and linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo and Ramogi Huma, but were ultimately squashed by the man who was supposed to be there for his players. Then-coach Bob Toledo pleaded with the protesting Bruins, maintaining that athletes should avoid making political statements.
There would be no effective demonstration, and UCLA would go on to lose that game against Miami. Not only had a group of players’ voices been silenced, but the otherwise-championship season had been spoiled.
But since that year, Huma has refused to give up the fight.
While still a student at UCLA, Huma founded what would become the National College Players Association, an organization dedicated to the rights of college athletes. He has worked closely with Colter in the push for student-athlete unionization.
If anyone knows of the true leverage a group of student-athletes can hold, it’s Huma.
“They have tremendous power,” he said. “Most universities’ … primary marketing is athletics. Universities are mentioned more in regards to athletics than any academic endeavour or any invention or any discovery than they’re involved in. It establishes the university brand. That’s the power of sports.”
The Tigers may have been in a completely different situation than the Bruins, from on-the-field performance to methods of protest to the issue in itself. But the base was the same — to use their position to transform what they perceived as a faulty system.
“I was proud of (the Missouri players) because, too often, they’re treated like property and not people,” Huma said. “It’s hard sometimes for young people who are in a system that does all it can to keep power away from them, to pretend like they don’t have that kind of leverage and power. So they don’t feel the power to anything outside of football.
“To watch these players recognize that they’re citizens of this country first, and that they have rights, puts something in front of their athletic ambitions … (It shows) someone who is concerned about their fellow being and things outside of football.”
At UCLA and Missouri, the situations were fundamentally different. One team was on top of the world, averaging 40 points per game with a 10-0 record and ranked No. 3 in the nation. The other was floundering, below .500 and putting up 14 points per game, suffering a touchdown drought of sorts. The Bruins were manned by Toledo, a relatively new head coach, who refused to take part in his team’s protest. The Tigers had Pinkel, the winningest coach in school history, who stood by his players without hesitation.
UCLA’s 20-game winning streak was dissolved in the following game. Against Brigham Young and against the odds, Missouri snapped its four-game losing streak in a game that was nearly canceled.
Sure, the Bruins would go on to finish their season 10-2 and snag a spot in the Rose Bowl while the Tigers ended 5-7, missing bowl eligibility. But, for Mizzou, none of that mattered.
"It didn’t matter if we were 9-0 or 0-9,” Moore said. "I knew from the jump that Coach Pinkel was going to support us. Coach Pinkel supports his players. We’re all his sons. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that he was going to stand (with) us. There’s no way he would have did that."
Through and through, one thing holds true for these events surrounding the Missouri Tigers: These players put everything on the line to work toward something bigger than themselves — bigger than football. They saw a problem with the school they love and united in the name of activism.
Moore and his teammates have said they hope to stay in touch with Concerned Student 1950, saying, “If they needed our help, we’d be there to help them.” The next step is unclear, but the push for equality won’t stop any time soon.
“We matter and we have a voice,” Sherrils said. “When we stand behind something and feel strongly about it as one, we’ll get it done … We made a difference and we used our platform to change something.”