COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – Student protests over the way leaders of the University of Missouri have responded to racial incidents on campus escalated dramatically over the weekend when at least 30 black football players announced they will not participate in team activities until the school’s president is removed.
Head coach Gary Pinkel promptly expressed solidarity with the players Sunday on Twitter by posting a picture of the team and coaches locking arms. The tweet read: “The Mizzou Family stands as one. We are united. We are behind our players.”
The black players did not say explicitly whether they would boycott the team’s three remaining games this season. The Tigers’ next game is Saturday against BYU at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and canceling it could cost the school millions.
University officials did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.
The players’ statement, issued Saturday night, aligns them with campus groups, including one called Concerned Student 1950, that have been protesting the way President Tim Wolfe has handled matters of race and discrimination on the overwhelmingly white, 35,000-student campus.
Student groups at the state’s flagship university have complained about the use of racial slurs on campus. Also, a swastika drawn in feces was found recently in a dormitory bathroom.
The statement from the football players included a photograph of 32 black men. Among them was Jonathan Butler, a black graduate student who is nearly a week into a hunger strike to call attention to racial problems on campus.
“The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere,'” the athletes said. “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’ experience. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!”
The athletic department said Saturday that it supports “our student-athletes’ right” to “tackle these challenging issues.”
Missouri won the SEC East title in 2013 and 2014 but is unranked this year with a 4-5 record.
The protests at the campus began after the student government president, who is black, said in September that someone in a passing pickup truck hurled a racial slur at him. Several days before the Oct. 10 homecoming parade, members of a black student organization said slurs were directed at them by an unidentified person.
The 1950 group – which draws its name from the year the university accepted its first black student – has demanded among other things that Wolfe “acknowledge his white male privilege,” that he be removed immediately, and that the school adopt a mandatory racial-awareness program and hire more black faculty and staff.
Already, at Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s request, the university announced plans to offer diversity training to all new students starting in January, along with faculty and staff.
Some members of the 1950 group blocked Wolfe’s car during the homecoming parade in an attempt to speak with him. Wolfe did not get out.
On Friday, Wolfe explained that he was caught off guard and said that he regretted his reaction, which “seemed like I did not care.”
He added: “I am asking us to move forward in addressing the racism that exists at our university – and it does exist.”
In a statement Sunday, Gov. Jay Nixon said the students’ concerns “must be addressed to ensure the University of Missouri is a place where all students can pursue their dreams in an environment of respect, tolerance and inclusion.”
It’s the latest controversy at the university in recent months, following the suspension of graduate students’ health care subsidies and an end to university contracts with a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions.
The campus in Columbia is about 120 miles west of Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where tensions erupted over the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown last year by a white police officer.
The school’s undergraduate population is 79 percent white and 8 percent black. The state is about 83 percent white and nearly 12 percent black.
Two years ago, Pinkel and his team made headlines after defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay. Sam came out to his teammates and coaches before the 2013 season, and they agreed to keep his secret until he was ready to go public.
Associated Press writer Ralph D. Russo in New York contributed to this report.
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