MOBILE, Ala. — College football’s most divisive event of the past year began with a group of graduate students angry over shifting healthcare policies at the University of Missouri.
Those controversial cuts — along with plans to limit Planned Parenthood funding — fractured the relationship between Missouri’s student body and its administration.
When president Tim Wolfe willfully ignored a Homecoming protest of racially charged incidents on and near campus, a small group of African American students took drastic action. Concerned Student 1950 issued a list of demands that, when disregarded, precipitated a hunger strike in early November.
Jonathan Butler was the movement’s face, and his self-induced starvation drew the attention of several Missouri football players.
Two nights after a home loss to Mississippi State, word spread: The Tigers were boycotting football activities until Wolfe resigned and Butler could eat again.
“We wanted to use our platform to save a life,” linebacker Kentrell Brothers told SEC Country after Senior Bowl practice on Thursday. “Whether we agreed with what was happening or not. None of the issues had anything to do with me, but we wanted to save his life. We didn’t want him to die defending what he believed in. I told my teammates, ‘Whatever you guys want to do, I’m behind you.’”
Brothers said he never experienced racism on campus. But that didn’t stop him from recognizing his teammates’ urgency.
When the Tigers announced their boycott that Saturday in November, it took until Sunday night to get everyone — including coach Gary Pinkel — on board.
“You can’t get everybody in a locker room on the same page,” center Evan Boehm said Tuesday. “But if you get a majority of the people in the locker room on the same page, you tell those other kids, ‘You might not want to do it, but you’ve got to respect it and have to go along with it.’”
Offensive tackle Connor McGovern was one of those who needed some convincing.
“I wish we could’ve played football,” he said Tuesday. “But then you kind of looked at it as maybe you’re helping something and changing history. So it was something you had to do your best to deal with and learn from.”
Once the team was united and Pinkel made his stance public, things moved swiftly. A game against BYU in Kansas City was six days away, with millions of dollars riding on the Tigers’ participation.
Facing immense pressure, Wolfe resigned from his post, allowing Butler to end his hunger strike and the football team to return to its training complex.
The sequence of events showed the country how far college athletes’ political reach could extend — and drew the ire of conservative football fans from Columbia, Mo., to Columbia, S.C.
“What we really learned is — I don’t want to say power, ‘cause that sounds kind of arrogant — but I guess how much power a football team can hold,” Brothers said. “With the platform we have, we can make a lot of things happen. We felt that if we came out and helped out, then issues would get resolved faster. And it worked.”
Added Boehm: “Football players are powerful on campus. We didn’t really realize that until everything went down. But at the same time, you can see how big of a brotherhood football creates. When I got a call on Saturday night from one of my teammates telling me about the protest, I was like, ‘Man, I’m behind you guys 100 percent.’ You guys have gotta do what you’ve gotta do, and I’m right with you. I’m right next to you. I’ll be there with you.
The day before Missouri’s game against BYU, Pinkel announced his lymphoma diagnosis and impending retirement.
Brothers, Boehm, McGovern and the Tigers took down the Cougars, then carried Pinkel off the field at Arrowhead Stadium. It marked the Missouri legend’s final victory.
“We supported our brothers,” McGovern said of that week’s preparation. “Everyone was there to help each other. No one was taking shots at anybody. We went and beat BYU, and I don’t know if you can say (the protest) brought us together, but it definitely didn’t tear us apart.”
Dreams of a third straight SEC East title faded much earlier in the season, but players understood why 2015 will likely be remembered before any of their major bowl victories.
“You saw the trust that people had in one another,” Boehm said. “Ultimately, we’re putting our season on the line. We’re trusting you with it. And we’re saying, you know, if this is a cause you support and something you think needs to be changed, then we have to support it and be there for you guys.”