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UFC's Tyron Woodley not surprised by stories of racism at the University of Missouri

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Tyron Woodley wanted to do as much research as he possibly could before speaking on the topic. He browsed the web and social media on his phone. He e-mailed some article links to himself to read later.

Woodley has followed the story about alleged racism at his alma mater, the University of Missouri, and the recent fallout that has come with it. But he still wanted to do his homework.

Even after all the reading, he still was not 100 percent satisfied. So, the UFC welterweight contender called his brother-in-law, who graduated from the University of Missouri's law school.

The two African-American men had the exact same recollection when it came to the topic of racism and Mizzou: the sad state of the university's black culture center.

"It was a beat-up, white building with holes in the roof," Woodley told MMA Fighting. "He remembered that same building. I think that building is pretty much the theme of the treatment some of the African-American students witnessed."

On Monday, University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced their resignations following months of student unrest about their response (or lack thereof) to multiple claims of on-campus racism. The capper was the statement Saturday that the school's football players -- with the support of their coach, Gary Pinkel -- would boycott the season unless Wolfe resigned.

The chain of events began in September when Missouri Students Association head Payton Head wrote on Facebook that men riding in the back of a pickup truck continuously shouted the n-word at him while he was walking through campus. In October, a black student government group tweeted about a drunk white male interrupting a rehearsal of their play and called them the n-word.

The university's response to these incidents included a statement posted online and the institution of mandatory online diversity training for students.

That was not enough for a group of student activists calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, named for the year the first black students were admitted into the University of Missouri. The group protested during the school's homecoming parade and blocked the path of a car in which Wolfe was riding. The students chanted and made speeches with the crux that the administration was not doing enough to combat racism on campus. Wolfe never left the vehicle. The driver revved the engine, and the car struck one of the protestors.

Later last month, Concerned Student 1950 demanded that Wolfe apologize and be removed from his role as president. The group set a deadline for one week.

Three days later, on Oct. 24, a swastika was draw in human feces in a dorm bathroom, according to the Missourian. Wolfe met with Concerned Student 1950 on Oct. 27, but the students said he didn't meet any of their demands.

On Nov. 2, a graduate student and member of the activist group, Jonathan Butler, said he would go on a hunger strike until Wolfe resigned. Butler also started a dialogue with African-American football players about the situation. Over the weekend, the entire team -- black players and white players -- said it would boycott. Wolfe and Loftin stepped down two days later.

"I think it was a well-organized and well-thought out strategy on how to get results and the solution that was non-violent," Woodley said. "If you really want something done, take a deep breath, don't act irrational, don't go and blow things up, loot, riot, steal and don't live up to the stereotypes that people are supposedly hitting you with. Come up with a strategy, come up with some valuable solutions, come up with a timeframe you want it done and come up with a way you want to get it done. That's what this group did."

Woodley, 33, said he was not the victim of direct racism while he was at Missouri. No one addressed him with a slur or acted against him in any overt way. However, he acknowledges that he was a student-athlete on the wrestling team -- and two-time All-American -- and had a different college experience than most others. Woodley said he saw signs of systemic racism at the Columbia, Mo., school.

"I definitely think it's racism that was at the university," he said. "Some people were so surprised, like, 'I would have never thought there was racism there.' Not to take it so far back, from the scope of how long humans have been on Earth, slavery was like yesterday. It's not like it was that far away. It's not like it happened B.C.

"I did see some things that weren't even playing fields, and it was obvious the favoritism. I wouldn't be surprised with some of these stories I'm hearing."

The size and upkeep of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center came to mind. Woodley said that at the time the student population was only 3.9 percent African American. It has risen to 7 percent as of 2014, per the school's website. He also said that there was a dubious lack of inclusion of black fraternities and sororities at homecoming and a significant inequality in Greek life.

"When you look at the campus and the huge mansions and these Greek homes for the predominantly white fraternities and sororities, there's zero fraternity homes and houses for predominantly African-American fraternities," Woodley said.

According to Missourian reports, Concerned Student 1950 has also demanded the enforcement of mandatory racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all staff and students, controlled by a board of color; an increase in the population of black faculty and staff to 10 percent by 2017-18; and the development of a 10-year plan to promote a safer, more inclusive campus by May 1.

'I did see some things that weren't even playing fields and it was obvious the favoritism. I wouldn't be surprised with some of these stories I'm hearing.' - Tyron Woodley

"When I got to the University of Missouri, it was extreme culture shock," said Woodley, who hails from Ferguson, Mo. "I walked into campus and I counted, it was like four or five days in a row where I didn't see one African-American the whole day of walking on campus. I had multiple classes with 400 people in the lecture hall and I'm the only African American. So, have I ever received piercing eyes or people that looked at me with a sense of disgust or 'why are you wearing your hair like that?' or 'why are you dressed like that?' Yeah, I've experienced that. But I made my experience at the University of Missouri what it was, because as an individual I know who I am. I have high self worth and I wasn't going to allow someone to tell me that I was inferior to them."

Woodley said he never experienced any racism whatsoever with regards to the wrestling team or program.

Racism, though, extends far beyond the lush landscape of Mizzou. Woodley said he was recently leaving his son's track and field junior Olympics event in Virginia Beach when 14 pickup trucks with men waving Confederate flags and yelling drove by.

"My sons don't know what a Confederate flag stands for," Woodley said. "They don't know that it means these individuals wish that we were still segregated, that the war that was fought that eventually gave us equal rights and freedom, they wished the other side would have won, basically. When I see a Confederate flag, that's what I understand it to mean."

Woodley told his sons that those men were expressing themselves, and they have a right to do it. He told them they have the same right not to listen or look at the men waving the flags.

The UFC star used his platform as a professional athlete to speak to hundreds of children about race (among other things) following the turmoil in his hometown of Ferguson last year. He believes education is the only viable answer to a problem that may never completely go away.

"Racism will never stop," Woodley said. "But racism controlling whether it's comments, whether it's politics, whether it's school systems, whether it's jobs, the workforce, racism controlling any of those avenues is the problem. You can't force someone not to feel a certain way.

"I think the energy and time needs to be spent on kids that are within that age where you can still catch them before they're lost. It's hard for me to go and tell another adult male that's my age, 'You should do this.'"

Activism, though, like the kind set forth by Concerned Student 1950 -- without violence or chaos -- is a positive step in the right direction, Woodley believes.

"I think people should consistently use better tactics and better ways to get results," he said. ... "I think these kids did a perfect job of showing, if we want this to happen, we feel like this will change the dynamic, we feel like these problems were not addressed and for that reason alone these are our demands."