Opinion: ‘It’s about way more than football.’ Oklahoma St. uprising isn’t just about Mike Gundy’s T-shirt

Whatever happened Monday on social media between Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and a large cadre of players wasn’t about a T-shirt. 

When the floodgates opened on him with a tweet from his best player Chuba Hubbard to vague accusations from others about change being needed in Stillwater, you can be sure that a picture of Gundy out on the lake last week repping OAN — that’s One America News, which we’ll get to in a second — was only the symptom of their displeasure and not the disease. 

In a matter of a few hours, things appeared to have deescalated as Hubbard appeared with Gundy in a video on Twitter. Gundy didn’t apologize but said he was “looking forward to making some changes, and it starts at the top with me.” Hubbard appeared to be satisfied and ready to move on.

But whatever happens from here in this brave new world of college athlete empowerment, a profound shift is occurring under the feet of every coach who has been cavalier about the issues their players care about most. From now on, college athletes are going to care less about what their coach has accomplished and more about who they are. 

Gundy, as it turns out, has never been shy about telling us who he is. He’s bullied reporters in public, dismissed criticism of his coaching from fans online as “people sitting home drawing an unemployment check,” called players who transfer “snowflakes” and, more recently, wanted players to come back to campus in May amid the COVID-19 pandemic because the school needed to “run money through the state of Oklahoma.” 

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy

In the middle of that rant in April, Gundy touted his viewership of OAN, which is known as a favorite news outlet of President Trump and peddler of absurd conspiracy theories.

Gundy said he had gravitated toward OAN because he “wasn’t happy with the way the mainstream media” has handled the coronavirus story and that OAN was “so refreshing” because “there’s no left, there’s no right, they just reported the news.”

This is, of course, a ridiculous interpretation of a news outlet that has been proven time and again to run with false stories and push theories that cater to a niche of right-wing viewership. But in this particular moment, perhaps, a more recent segment on OAN was what troubled some of Gundy’s players the most. 

If you search for Liz Wheeler, a 31-year-old host on OAN, you’ll find a treasure trove of commentary taking shots at the Black Lives Matter movement. In one clip, she calls it “a farce” and that it speaks “not for race, but for racial divide; not for hope but for oppression; not for justice but for revenge; not for freedom, but for fear; not for lives, but for lies.” 

Not to assume what Gundy believes about Black Lives Matter — he’s offered little so far about the current events in the country beyond an anodyne statement posted on May 31 — but you can understand that Oklahoma State players who saw the photo of Gundy in an OAN shirt on Twitter might have gotten a little curious. 

Hubbard initially called it “completely insensitive to everything going on in society” in a Tweet and said he would “not be doing anything with Oklahoma State until things CHANGE,” though it wasn’t clear exactly what change he was seeking. 

But as others jumped in to support Hubbard and refer to their own grievances about experiences at Oklahoma State, this seemed different from the uprisings we saw last week at Clemson and Iowa. Whereas former players vocally supported Dabo Swinney and Kirk Ferentz as people, despite what might have happened in their programs, you weren’t seeing much of that for Gundy. 

Tylan Wallace, the spectacular receiver for the Cowboys, tweeted “It’s About Way More Than Football!!!” Linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga and offensive linemen also tweeted support for Hubbard’s boycott. 

Baltimore Ravens running back Justice Hill, a former Oklahoma State player from 2016-18, tweeted that “OSU Athletics and University need major change” and when someone responded suggesting that this was an overreaction because of a shirt, he tweeted “You don’t see everyday things.” LC Greenwood, another former player, tweeted that he was called a “hood rat and thug.” Patrick Macon, a former Oklahoma State linebacker who transferred to South Florida, tweeted: “I was Threaten I was Gonna Get Sent Back To The Hood Numerous Time.”

Even with Gundy accepting that some things around his program need to change, knowing some specifics — both about the culture around his program and what he plans to do going forward — are worthy of further examination. Oklahoma State athletics director Mike Holder called the events of Monday “very disturbing” in a statement and said the Tweets were of “grave concern.” 

If that’s true, a team meeting probably isn’t the end of this. We need to know whether Gundy was part the problem, and why he’s fit to be part of the solution. 

And that’s worth a full accounting in this environment — not just for Oklahoma State players but every recruit considering where to spend the next few years in college. 

Because from the very beginning of that journey, they are being sold a product. The goal is to compel the best talent to pick one program over the others by emphasizing what might matter to them most. 

It’s why some schools will tout their tradition and facilities, while others will attract players because the offensive system has put a bunch of guys in the NFL and others still will sell their academic reputation and the opportunities it can open up for them after football is done. In the end, there’s something for everyone. 

But whether a college athlete has a good or bad experience is mostly going to be determined not by where they’re playing but who they’re playing for. That’s never been more important than it is in these times. 

As we’ve watched horrible events unfold and protests form and attitudes change, most coaches have realized that they’re either going to support their players and the issues they want to raise or they’re going to face the backlash. It’s part of the job now.

Whatever Mike Gundy’s politics or his preferred news sources are don’t really matter. If the players in his locker room think he’s doing this job for any reason other than to serve and empower the young people that have chosen to play for him, he is not fit for this decade.

Gundy gave his players reason to question that time and time again. Maybe it just took a T-shirt to finally believe him. 

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