Recruits, former MU athletes give different takes on protests

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COLUMBIA - The dust is settling on one of the most eventful Novembers mid-Missouri has seen.

Implications are abound for MU in its recruiting of students and athletes in the wake of the events on campus that garnered it national attention - in particular, the racial incidents preceding the resignation of Tim Wolfe and other system administrators; the football team's protest; the hunger strike of Jonathan Butler and its fallout; and the perceived terrorist threats to minority students on campus

KOMU 8 reached out to several students from Columbia high schools and sat down with several from Battle High School - the only team whose football program was still in the state playoffs while the aforementioned events transpired at MU.

Tyler Gray will attend MU as a student in the fall of 2016. The cornerback played only one season for the Battle Spartans, his senior year, and doesn't intend on playing sports in college. He used to dream of playing college basketball. He said the perceived racist climate at his future school threw him off guard.

"It really shocked me," Gray said. "Because I felt like the students at Mizzou were all like a good community, and [the protests] kind of showed two different sides of Mizzou...and then it turned into students versus students. I didn't really like that."

Jaevon McQuitty, 16, is going through the college recruiting process currently. The four star wide receiver has many high profile schools watching him - Missouri, Alabama, Nebraska, and Cincinnati, among many others. 

"The players love Mizzou for a reason," McQuitty said. "I don't think [the recruits] would change." 

McQuitty's father, James McQuitty, said he hasn't felt adversity in his experience living in Fayette and Columbia. The elder McQuitty said he didn't follow the protests and events on MU's campus closely.

"I would like to know if things aren't going as they should be," McQuitty said. "As a parent, I would want to know, because he is my son and his safety is my major concern, as well as his education." 

James McQuitty said he trusted his son's discretion in choosing a school.

"I think it comes down to what the kid wants, maybe, say, as far as what Jaevon wants as far as his education, where he would want to play, and believing in the coaches and the team," McQuitty said. "Things are going to happen out there. It's his decision.

"I don't really have a concern about [race relations], to be honest with you."

McQuitty's lifelong teammate also followed the situation on campus with a deeper concern. Brevinn Tyler, Battle's junior quarterback, felt deeply concerned about the events on MU's campus. His father, works on campus and his sister is a student. Both family members stayed home after the Yik Yak threats left campus almost deserted.

Tyler said as a recruit, he would want a prospective school to assure him he would be in a safe environment. 

"I think I'd want them to tell me it's been taken care of," Tyler said. "And that it was actually successful in the way that they handled it. I think being a recruit there could actually help, to see the football team has that much power around campus and that they're willing to put themselves in a situation that's not just football."

Tyler said he could understand why Sci Martin, a recruit from Louisiana, might reconsider his options while the university is mired in reports of racism and an uneasy campus climate. 

"You wouldn't want to go there knowing this stuff might be happening," Tyler said. "Hopefully it will resolve itself. It might not take a week like some want it to be. It might be a couple years to where we can kind of lose that reputation. That's what I think really hurts the university and just Columbia in general, is the reputation we're going to have now. It's really sad to see."    

The perspective doesn't only come from Battle. Bryce Banks, a senior at Rock Bridge high school, intends to play college football. The defensive back knows for certain he will not play for Missouri after breaking his commitment this summer. Banks said he doesn't consider the "portion of people who are racist" to represent MU's student body. He said ultimately the First Amendment allows students to say controversial things. Banks said as a recruit, he wouldn't let what happened on MU's campus impact his decision.

 "You can't let it play too much into your decision," Banks said. "Because there is going to be racism anywhere you go, to be honest. Sometimes it's up front in your face, or behind your back. You just have to find a positive way to handle it when you encounter the situation."

Rob Stewart, Jr. walked on for the Missouri men's basketball team in the 2002-2003 season. Stewart had lived in Columbia his entire life, attended Hickman High School, and was pursuing a Master's degree in education during his tenure as an athlete. His timeline intertwined with the last real big controversy involving a UM system president - only that time it had involved basketball coach Quin Snyder and athlete Ricky Clemons.

Stewart said he and several former athletes he knows consider the way college athletics is run to be systemically racist. He pointed to the way universities make money off contracts with retailers (e.g. Nike) or the way fans purchase video games in NCAA football, basketball, and baseball. The former walk-on also said he didn't like how fans would make money by collecting his autograph and selling it on eBay as part of a full set of signatures, oftentimes for great sums of money.

"There should be some compensation for players who are giving universities millions [of dollars] when they're not getting anything," Stewart said. "It mainly takes advantage of minorities."

Stewart, now an associate pastor at St. Luke's United Methodist Church, was on campus for the hunger strike and protests, and in the wake of former UM President Tim Wolfe and former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin's resignations. Stewart said he saw people of all races both in support of and against the protests leading to the officials' resignations.

"It's not always an every white person versus every black person and vice-versa," Stewart said. "And I wish people would take note of that even more."

The associate pastor also ran for First Ward city councilman in February. He said several community members have reached out to him asking for perspective in the wake of the events on MU's campus.

"I've had white people ask me, 'Isn't this a surprise? Aren't you surprised by this?' And I say, no, I'm not surprised, because minorities have been going through things like this for years," Stewart said. "But they've been on the edge. And this particular event, in this moment, in this place, pushed minorities over the edge to respond in this way. I think to people who the system benefits, this is a surprise because they've lived so comfortably...they don't see the other side of what the system does.

"I've seen it, I've felt it, I've experienced it here and there, and it's not a surprise." 

Thomson Omboga befriended Stewart while the two attended MU. Omboga played all four years as a wide receiver for the Tiger football team. Omboga said he could understand Stewart's view of how college athletics is run as systemically racist, but he didn't agree with it. He also noted how easier it was for him to get a job out of college rather than a lesser-known athlete like Stewart.

"Someone who just followed football would be like, 'Oh! That's great,'" Omboga said on applying for jobs. "And I would get recognition and they'd ease me into it. Versus someone who didn't play a lot or maybe was a walk-on who had to take a different approach. It works both ways." 

When asked what prospective recruits could expect based on his experience at MU, Omboga said he's felt more adversity now than when he was a student. He said he feels it from both blacks and whites alike. His daughter is bi-racial. 

"You get a lot of black athletes dating white girls," Omboga said. "That was a big deal. And that went both ways: black people saying 'Why are you dating a white girl?' or, the white people would say 'You only date white people. Leave our women alone.' Stuff like that. But as far as new things - like the swastika stuff - I couldn't say I dealt with any of that kind of stuff."

Omboga compared the football team's handling of the Jonathan Butler hunger strike to its unanimous support for Michael Sam, when the team's defensive end came out as homosexual. Omboga said MU has garnered too much praise from different outlets to suffer damage to its recruitment.

"If I'm Pinkel, I got to go out there in the media and remind people of all the positive things and not a few racial incidents," Omboga said. 

Pinkel announced his retirement only a week after the football team's protest due to his battle against lymphoma. A new coach will assume the roles and responsibilities of recruiting and welcoming players into the program. KOMU 8 reached out to Mizzou Athletics for a comment on how the institution wants its coaches to address the climate on campus to recruits. The athletic department had not responded as of Thursday. However, Pinkel did state his reasoning behind supporting the football team's boycott at his joint news conference with Mack Rhoades on Nov. 9.

"I got involved because I support my players, and a young man's life was on the line," Pinkel told reporters at the news conference. "I did the right thing, and I would do it again."

Both Omboga and Stewart said if they had had scholarships to other schools with reports of racial incidents coming from campus, they likely wouldn't choose MU. They also said the campus climate must have changed in some way for an activist like Butler to go on a hunger strike and risk his life.

Tyler Gray said he will remain faithful to his decision to attend MU. He said while he hasn't experienced racism firsthand at school, he won't let reports of it on the university's campus impact his decision.

"I just want to go to Mizzou," Gray said. "I've always wanted to go to Mizzou, I'm still going to Mizzou, and I just want to go there and get my education."

16-year-old McQuitty said he wants to choose a school whose fans and staff lend support to its players, like he thinks Pinkel did. 

"I want to go somewhere they will love us no matter what, and support us no matter what," McQuitty said. "Just people who will honestly care about me and my decisions. I think I have that school in mind."