Athletics and activism: Looking back on a historic football boycott

Marcell Frazier: “I thought I was just coming to college to play football and get an education. And all of that good stuff happened and opened up my network a lot as far as people outside of football, ... people in the social progress world.”
MISSOURI TIGERS FOOTBALL PLAYERS GATHERED TO RELEASE A STATEMENT ON TIM WOLFE'S RESIGNATION AND THE CONCLUSION OF THEIR BOYCOTT NOV. 9, 2015, AT THE MEL CARNAHAN QUAD. Maneater File Photo

As a freshman football player living in South Hall, Ian Simon often walked through Greektown on his way to class. The year was 2011, and he was an 18-year-old from Texas adjusting to a new home, college classes and Division I athletics.

One day, as he made his way through the rows of fraternity and sorority mansions, he saw a group of male students standing outside their house. They shouted racial slurs at him.

Simon kept walking.

It wasn’t the first time he was called the N-word, and it wasn’t the last.

“It’s part of being black in America,” he said. “It’s going to happen to you at some point or another.”

After taking a redshirt season in 2011, Simon went on to have a prolific career at Missouri. He played in two Southeastern Conference Championship games, tallied 156 career tackles and was named a team captain his senior year.

But Simon’s biggest impact on the Missouri football program may have been off the field. In November 2015, he helped orchestrate a football team boycott that garnered national attention.

The boycott came after racial tensions on campus caused graduate student Jonathan Butler to go on a hunger strike demanding UM System President Tim Wolfe’s resignation. Members of the football team responded with a photo. The picture, which was tweeted by defensive back Anthony Sherrils, showed more than 30 black football players locking arms with Butler.

“We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences,” Sherrils said in the tweet.

Two days later, Wolfe resigned.

Simon is now a custom suit salesman in Arlington, Texas, and no longer plays football. Throughout the past year, he’s been able to look at the events of last fall with more clarity.

“I gained a huge appreciation for everything the strike put me through, because it made me be more proud of who I am,” he said. “[It made me] want to go forth and set a good example for others to follow.”

Though he is nearly 12 months and 600 miles from last fall’s boycott, his passion for both his school and racial equality has not wavered.

“I love Mizzou with all my heart,” he said. “M-I-Z ‘til I D-I-E. No doubt … it’s definitely a place that, if I’m blessed enough to have kids someday, I would want them to go. But I don’t want my kids to have to play a sport to go to college. And if they do go, I don’t want to see them have to go to a school where they would be subject to this.”

Missouri safety Ian Simon (21) walks off the field during the Missouri vs. Vanderbilt game Oct. 24, 2015, at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee.Photo by SUZANNE LE BEL/PHOTOGRAPHER

Being a black athlete on campus

Simon constantly noticed the looks people would give him.

He would be walking with a hoodie on, and students would cross to the other side of the street. Sometimes he saw people clutching their bags a little tighter when he was nearby. Some would stare at him when he entered a building.

“People don’t recognize you when you get that helmet off,” he said. “All they see is the name and the number. And when someone does recognize me … then everybody kind of lets down their guard. Now I’m acceptable to them.”

For Simon, the subtle actions on campus spoke volumes.

Doctoral student Reuben Faloughi can relate. He was involved with activist group Concerned Student 1950 last fall, and he played SEC football at Georgia before coming to Missouri for graduate school.

While playing for the Bulldogs, Faloughi remembers being treated like a celebrity on game days. Police escorted the players through traffic. Fans asked him to kiss their babies.

But the other six days of the week offered a stark contrast to Saturdays in Athens.

“Everybody wants to hang out with the athlete when you go out after the games,” Faloughi said. “But when they don’t think that you’re part of the football team, they won’t let you in the bar.”

Doctoral student Reuben Faloughi stands in the Student Center in November, 2015.THOMAS OIDE/PHOTOGRAPHER

While playing for Missouri, Simon found he had to change his demeanor on campus. Unless people knew he donned the black and gold Tigers uniform on Saturdays, he was forced to actively try to appear unthreatening. He made conscious efforts to smile when he walked into buildings, and he avoided wearing the hoods on his jackets.

“You just kind of accept that’s the way it is,” he said. “It’s been happening to black people for so long in this country that you just don’t talk about it anymore. You just accept it, acknowledge it and move on with your life. Because if you get upset about every little thing, it would eat you alive.”

Defensive lineman Marcell Frazier was raised in Oregon and came to Missouri from a junior college in California. Since arriving in Columbia, the redshirt junior has noticed his new home is more conservative than the West.

Though Frazier has heard “questionable stuff” on campus, he said it is hard to determine what is racism and what is freedom of speech.

Unlike Simon, Frazier has not felt any racism directed at him in Columbia. Still, he realizes he doesn’t know what other students have experienced.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve [ever experienced] overt racism, but that may have to do with me being a 6-foot-5 football player that weighs 260 pounds,” Frazier said. “So I can’t speak for the little black girl walking at night, walking to her dorm and she’s only 5-foot, 110 pounds.”

Growing up in Texas, Simon remembers hearing horror stories from his family about racism in the South. His hometown was accepting, though, and he did not feel out of place until he came to Columbia.

“I wasn’t a kid anymore when I got to Missouri,” he said. “I was an 18-year-old young black man, and that scared the shit out of some people.”

Taking action

On the evening of Oct. 26, 2015, over 300 people gathered in a suite above Faurot Field. Male student-athletes, Mizzou Athletics staffers and administrators crammed into rows of chairs to listen to a panel on race facilitated by assistant professor Ty-Ron Douglas.

The meeting was a part of the Men for Men program, a Mizzou Athletics initiative to support and promote social responsibility.

Faloughi was invited to the meeting and was impressed with the environment Douglas created.

“It was a space for athletes to open up and be real,” Faloughi said. “But then you also saw the pain, the pain that they had never got a chance to really process with anybody.”

Seven days later, Butler announced his hunger strike. Four days after that, the football team began its boycott.

Race was at the center of campus conversation.

Though Simon said the Men for Men gathering was not a catalyst for the football boycott, the aftermath of the strike made him reflect back on the meeting. He said it was powerful and real.

On Nov. 7, 2015, Faloughi remembers receiving word that Concerned Student 1950 would be meeting with a group of football players. Though he already had plans during the day, Faloughi cleared his schedule.

“I knew that this was going to be an important meeting,” he said.

Members of Concerned Student 1950 and the group of football players met at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Faloughi said it was a productive meeting — both groups were on the same page.

Simon could not remember whose idea the boycott was, but the team decided it would be the most effective way to spark change.

“I forget who suggested it initially,” he said. “That was the most radical idea and obviously would get the most attention.”

Simon, Sherrils, Charles Harris and J’Mon Moore emerged as the leaders of the football boycott. Sherrils’ initial tweet got nearly 3,000 retweets, and the nation turned its attention towards Missouri.

The team was true to its word. They did not practice until after Tim Wolfe resigned on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015.

“When I think about it now, it’s crazy that it still happened,” running back Ish Witter said. “But that’s in the past. It was definitely a history changer.”

Reactions from the community

Simon remembers the moment he knew that offensive lineman Connor McGovern would be his brother for life.

The day was Nov. 7, 2015, and Simon had called as many players as possible to tell them about the boycott. Some were open to the idea, while others were more dismissive.

After Simon’s phone calls, the team gathered in the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex to discuss the boycott. At the meeting, McGovern, who is white, stood up.

“Look, we can’t win without y’all anyway,” McGovern said, according to Simon.

The joke lightened the mood. The team laughed, and McGovern continued.

“I’ve never been black, and I never will be black,” he said. “And I don’t understand. But I understand it’s something that y’all have to do.”

To Simon, the simple statement spoke volumes about McGovern’s character.

“To me, that was enough,” he said. “That shows a willingness to be understanding … I know now until the day I die, I can call Connor for help if I need it, or he can call me for help if he needs it. I know I’ve got Connor in my corner.”

Simon feels McGovern’s statement helped make some members of the team feel more open to the boycott.

Redshirt sophomore Paul Adams also remembers McGovern, who now plays in the NFL with the Denver Broncos, addressing the team. He felt it was a moment that helped unify the group of players as the family they strive to be.

“I think it was huge,” he said. “It was kind of eye-opening for me, especially just to see and hear everything that was going on in that time period and seeing who was stepping up and whatnot.”

But not everyone was as open to the boycott as McGovern.

Simon remembers some of his teammates responding with doubt and anger. He found these reactions hurtful.

“There was some tension there that lingered,” he said. “I understand it, because we made a huge decision without their consent. … They were upset they didn’t have a say in it, but it wasn’t their place to have a say in it.”

Some words from Simon’s former teammates also stung.

When he came to Missouri from Texas, Simon knew very few people on the team. A number of veteran players took him under their wing. When Simon heard criticism from some of those mentors, it was shocking.

“Hearing their perspective and hearing their views actually hurt,” he said.

The public backlash, on the other hand, did not bother Simon as much. He and his teammates knew what they were getting into with the boycott, and they expected widespread criticism.

Simon said it was crazy hearing political figures call for the removal of the team’s scholarships. Still, it represented an important step for the movement.

“When you get into politics, that’s where change happens,” Simon said. “Every change that black America has made through the years has been through politics. You have to reach the lawmakers.”

Impact and institutions

Faloughi sees sports as a business. And in that business, he says athletes get the short end of the stick.

Sure, they are given scholarships to be student-athletes. But everything comes second to their sport. The focus on life after athletics is limited, and Faloughi feels this is problematic.

“Particularly in the climate we’re in with the state-sanctioned violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s key for black athletes to be in tune with what’s going on,” he said. “And that’s not how they’re being engaged. Athletic departments aren’t engaging their athletes on these issues. And so athletes are getting exposed to it on their own.”

Missouri Tigers safety Anthony Sherrils (22) runs with the ball after an interception Sept. 19, 2015, during a game against the Connecticut Huskies at Faurot Field.JORDAN KODNER/SENIOR STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

To Faloughi, it seems that athletes are exploited. But, when they realize how much institutions rely on them, they can spark change.

Simon and the Missouri football players saw their power as student-athletes. Football has a broad platform — Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem have re-launched a nationwide discussion on racial tensions — and Missouri football players used their sport to address the issues they saw on campus.

“It’s part of American society; it’s woven in our fiber,” Simon said. “If you’re going to confront an issue that you want changed, why not put it out there in as many people’s face as possible?”

Frazier remembers Simon being strategic throughout the boycott. He made plans but never made himself the center of attention.

In Frazier’s mind, Ian Simon did things bigger than football.

“Ian probably changed a lot of our lives indirectly as far as within the black community,” Frazier said.

For Frazier, that meant finding connections he never knew he had. He met members of the NAACP, as well as other activists, because of the football boycott.

“I thought I was just coming to college to play football and get an education,” he said. “And all of that good stuff happened and opened up my network a lot as far as people outside of football, people outside the academic world, people in the social progress world.”

Faloughi feels college athletes can become isolated from everyday students. When so much time and energy are spent on a sport, it is hard to get a sense of the campus climate. Students see athletes as only athletes, and their other identities aren’t taken into account.

That’s one reason Faloughi felt the boycott was so powerful: Football players were able to connect with other students on campus.

“I think a lot of times, people on campus, even black students — definitely black students — they think athletes are just here to play football, and they’re just these tough guys who don’t experience stress or emotion,” Faloughi said. “And what you would see in those interactions was that stigma diminish. Because these athletes have real lives and they feel the same pressure and stress that we feel, and it’s important. And they matter.”

Edited by Theo DeRosa | tderosa@themaneater.com

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