Mizzou football players say campus protests show athletes have power

SVP offers his take on Missouri (2:01)

Scott Van Pelt reacts to the Missouri football team's support of fellow students with actions that culminated in the resignation of university system president Tim Wolfe. (2:01)

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Unrest on the Missouri campus, brought on by dissatisfaction with the way the president of the university system handled complaints about racism, had been brewing for months.

It took only two days after the football team joined the protest and threatened to stay off the field until a black student protester ended his hunger strike for the target of their boycott to be gone.

"Let this be a testament to all of the athletes across the country that you do have power," Tigers defensive end Charles Harris said Monday. "It started with a few individuals on our team, and look what it's become. Look where it's at right now. This is nationally known, and it started with just a few."

The Missouri team's stand was credited with escalating the protest about long-simmering tensions about race and other student welfare issues on campus. It was a serious threat with financial implications: The Missouri athletic department faced a $1 million dollar payment to BYU if it had to back out of the teams' game.

The president of the University of Missouri system, Tim Wolfe, resigned Monday morning and said he took full responsibility for students' anger over what they saw as indifference to racial tensions at the flagship campus in Columbia. With Wolfe's resignation, Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler ended his weeklong hunger strike.

Almost as swiftly as they started the football strike, the team backed away from the spotlight.

The players insisted they were just a few voices in a larger protest. They skipped a news conference with all the media they brought to campus in favor of a rally with classmates. Practice resumes Tuesday. The game Saturday will go on.

But there was no denying how quickly the campus debate changed once the team got involved.

A few players talked to a group of reporters gathered at Carnahan Quad, where student protesters had built a small tent city over the weekend.

"We just wanted to use our platform to take a stance as fellow concerned students on an issue that has special meaning, as a fellow black man's life was on the line," senior defensive back Ian Simon said. "We love the game, but at the end of the day, it is just that -- a game. Through this experience, we really began to bridge the gap between student and athlete and the phrase 'student-athlete.' By connecting with the community and realizing the bigger picture, we will continue to build with the community and support positive change on Mizzou's campus."

Coach Gary Pinkel said a group of players came to him Saturday night, after they had met with Butler, and told him they were deeply concerned about Butler's health. He listened.

"A young man's life, Jonathan Butler, his life was at stake," athletic director Mack Rhoades said during a news conference with Pinkel. "That was real for our student-athletes. That was real for our young men who compete on our football team who maybe have never, ever dealt with that. So our student-athletes decided to get involved, and quite frankly, simply, we supported them. They decided to be leaders on this issue. To save a life of a fellow student."

Late Saturday night, a group of about 30 players of color announced the boycott on Twitter. On Sunday, Pinkel gathered the entire team, and they decided to support their teammates.

Pinkel expressed solidarity on Twitter and posted a picture of the team and coaches locking arms.

"I'm not naive to think that internally there were players that put their hand up and said I'm in but are really in just because of the team, just because they care about their teammates," Pinkel said.

Pinkel said his support of his players should not be taken as support for the ouster of Wolfe.

"I got involved because I support my players and a young man's life was on the line," Pinkel said.

Rhoades and Pinkel said they were not concerned the threat of a strike would set a precedent for future player boycotts.

"All of us, our coaches, our staff, our student-athletes, we understand that not participating in athletic activities is an extreme measure," Rhoades said. "By no means do we believe that this is an ideal way to invoke change or answer all of our problems."

In this case, though, there was no doubt it made a difference.

"As a football team, we are here to support the movement," receiver J'Mon Moore said, "and use our platform to make a difference."

Men's basketball coach Kim Anderson said he would have backed similar action by his players.

"The main thing I wanted them to do, that is if they wanted to do something -- which again, I would have supported it -- just make sure that they're fully informed of what they're doing and that they are together as a group," Anderson said, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Former Tigers players in the NFL were also standing in support and expressing pride of how their alma mater united behind their teammates.

"I think they did the right thing," Cardinals linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said a day after Wolfe announced his resignation. "If that's what the team wanted to do to support the black community on campus because they were a part of that as a part of the football team, I think it was great that the team stood with them as well."

"Their other teammates, they stood with them. Their coaches stood with them. And I think it just shows that they're family."

Rookie linebacker Markus Golden, Arizona's other Missouri product, has seen the Tigers' football team band together in support of each other before.

He was a junior at Missouri in 2013 when Michael Sam played his senior season while keeping his sexuality a secret thanks, in large part, to his teammates.

"That's what we do at Mizzou," Golden said. "That's the thing about (Missouri) coach (Gary) Pinkel. He recruits you to be a better player but even a better man. So, I feel like that right there, that's some guys taking a step at being better men."

Information from ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and The Associated Press was used in this report.