COLUMBIA — There was no singular moment or event that led the Missouri football team to sit out of practice Friday, or one leader who stepped up to direct the group.
The players gathered for a meeting before what would have been the final practice of fall camp before a scrimmage, started talking, and just kept talking. For three hours, the players and coaches shared their life experiences in relation to racism, the police and more. Some cried.
The group collectively began outlining their next actions for bettering their communities, co-authored a statement released on social media, and resumed practice Saturday morning. The Tigers will scrimmage today at Faurot Field, then turn their attention to preparing for the season scheduled to begin Sept. 26 at home against Alabama.
Head coach Eli Drinkwitz and the team’s three captains — linebacker Nick Bolton, running back Larry Rountree III and offensive lineman Case Cook — addressed media Saturday afternoon via Zoom to discuss what happened, and what they want to happen next. Drinkwitz announced the captains in his opening statement, and said a fourth rotating captain will be named before each of the 10 Southeastern Conference games this fall from the team’s group of seniors.
“It was us having things on our heart and on our mind that we felt were more important than football on that specific day,” Bolton said. ” We understand things can’t be fixed in one day. We’ve been doing this for over 100 years.”
Some collective themes emerged: the players said they were unified in deciding to sit out practice and working out their plans, with full support from the coaching staff; the players wanted to help their communities and work on building identities outside of football; and the players wanted to continue to bring awareness to unjust and unequal application of the law.
“A lot of players on our team are African American and it’s kind of hard to ignore the things that you see on the internet every day,” Bolton said. “It’s just bringing awareness to the situation. We understand this is happening and it’s disrespectful for us just to ignore it, knowing that it’s part of our heritage, part of our people, part of our community. We feel like our hearts were heavy on that.”
Drinkwitz and the players emphasized the unity of the football program in deciding what would come next and what to put into the message released publicly. Rountree and Bolton were both appreciative of the coaching staff’s support, particularly Drinkwitz, before he even coaching a game in Black and Gold.
“At the end of the day, I know coach Drink has my back and everybody’s back, he loves every single one of us like we’re his own sons,” Rountree said.
Drinkwitz said last week in a national radio appearance his views on race had changed since 2015, and told a story about a traffic stop in Philadelphia while driving with a Black friend in 2016: his friend asked him to put his hands out the window, and Drinkwitz didn’t immediately understand why.
No specifics were given, but Drinkwitz hinted some of his current players shared similar stories during their team meeting.
“To hear some of the stories that some of our players have experienced makes it incredibly real for me and for us,” Drinkwitz said. “These young men feel hurt because of what happened to them and their common denominator was they were African Americans. They’re wanting to know if that’s how it’s supposed to be, and it’s not. And I don’t think there’s a police officer out there right now that would say that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Athletic director Jim Sterk stopped by Drinkwitz’s office after the meeting and was around the team at dinner to show his support; basketball coaches Cuonzo Martin and Robin Pingeton, as well as chancellor and UM System president Mun Choi, have also supported the players exercising their agency.
Protests and postponed games began in the NBA and WNBA after Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., and remains paralyzed in the hospital. Those protests spread to the other major sports leagues, and a number of SEC football programs organized walks or events while postponing practice, the clear message being eliminating racism and police brutality is more important than sports.
Missouri isn’t ready to reveal publicly what its next steps are. Drinkwitz said the Tigers implemented an initiative after the voting registration drive in early June that will remain private, and actions within the community may be revealed once ideas become fully-fledged plans.
It feels more real, Rountree said, if their plans are carried out privately.
“It’s not for the internet, it’s not for— it’s actually, as a person, we care. Change starts at heart,” he said. “If we’re all just playing football and we’re not saying nothing, that’s kind of like, ‘You can’t say nothing?’ I’m going to use my platform. I’m a student-athlete at the University of Missouri. I can say something. As a team, we can all come together and say something and be real about the situation, and not just let it fly over our heads.
“There’s stuff going on all around the world, and you can’t just sit here and act like ain’t nothin’ goin’ on, and I would be wrong if I didn’t say anything about it.”
For Drinkwitz and his staff, the focus is on supporting the players and giving them a chance to speak.
“I’m focused on Black lives, and making sure they matter as much to me as they do to anybody else, making sure that they understand that I care about them,” Drinkwitz said. “I have to make sure that their lives matter as much as anyone else’s, and if they feel that’s not the case, then I hurt for them.”
“Just because it hasn’t impacted or affected me that doesn’t mean it’s not real,” he added. “That’s the conversation that we have to have. Just because somebody hasn’t experienced it doesn’t mean somebody else isn’t experiencing it, doesn’t mean it’s not real to them.”
The players are also confident sharing their experiences in a personal and emotional setting will bring the team closer together.
“When we go out and play on Saturdays we’re out there to execute and we’re out there to out-team the opponent,” Cook said. “So, the closeness we’ve gotten over these past months and how tight-knit this group’s become, I think it’s unbelievable, honestly, how close knit and tight we are and how much we appreciate everybody, what everyone does. I think, just the unity in that team, it means so much.”