By Michael Kinney
The University of Oklahoma football has yet to play a single game in 2020. Yet, they may have made their most important statement of the year already.
On Aug. 25. the Sooners, dressed in all black and wearing facial coverings, took a five-minute walk from their practice field to the Unity Garden located in the middle of campus. The demonstration was to show support and unity for those who have been affected by incidents involving black men and women and police departments around the country.
None of the players spoke to the media after the event. That task was left to coach Lincoln Riley, who said recent events during the past few months created a dialogue with his players that he called a learning experience.
“I’ve been very surprised about some of the things I’ve heard,” Riley said. “I grew up a white male, and I have not lived or had to experience some of the things that a lot of my players have had to. So that has absolutely been a learning experience for me. I mean, every step of it, and it’s definitely made me more aware.”
Oklahoma’s demonstration came in wake of Jacob Blake, a 29-year old black man, who was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, WI. police officers on Aug. 23. The incident was caught on a 20-second video that went viral and cause national outrage.
Two days after the Blake shooting, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was caught on video shooting two protesters in Kenosha. His lawyer says Rittenhouse was protecting local businesses from rioters.
These incidents sparked a national wave of protests among sports leagues. The NBA made the first move by boycotting postseason games Aug. 26. The WNBA, MLB, MLS and the NFL all saw games or practices canceled in the following days.
That led up to Oklahoma’s demonstration on Friday in which they joined other college football teams across the country, who wanted to show their support in similar ways. They included Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, Kentucky, South Florida, Boston College, Western Kentucky, Appalachian State, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
“We’re always pushing our players to try to do more and more and more,” Riley said. “That doesn’t just apply to the football field; just doesn’t apply to the classroom. We had a great meeting yesterday. Like I said out there, pretty emotional meeting with our guys yesterday. They look to us as a staff for guidance, and we knew we wanted to do something together as a team.”
Led out by Riley, the team interlocked arms and walked silently to the Unity Garden and lined up shoulder to shoulder. Riley gave a short speech on why the team was making this statement.
The Sooners then had a :57 second moment of silence to mark the 57th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
When it concluded, the Sooners walked silently back to their practice field where Riley addressed the media on what his players been going through. Without the players being able to or willing to share their stories or feelings, it was only Riley’s point of view that was given.
“These guys in a sense feel like they’ve been piled on. With the pandemic,” Riley said. “We’ll make sure that they know that, that they have outlets, that they have people here that care about them. And two, it’s about persevering through it. Nothing good has ever happened that you didn’t have to fight for a little bit, and you didn’t have to push through hard times for. You can’t be defeated in these moments. You can’t be hopeless. You got to be even more motivated, and our hope is more together.”
While Riley said the demonstration was to show support and unity, not all Oklahoma fans took it in the same vein. Social media sites were filled with comments from fans who were not happy with the demonstration.
In one Oklahoma Sooners Facebook group, Willie Edwards wrote “All Lives Matter, especially the unborn. Shame on you Sooners.”
Another post from Carol Ready stated, “Keep politics out of our college sports.” And Mark Sullivan simply posted ‘Too Far coach.”
Yet, in many ways, the Sooner’s demonstration was as subtle and non-threatening as possible. Neither Riley or the players used the phrase Black Lives Matter and none of them wore any visible pieces of clothing with the phrase on it.
However, when Riley posted a photo of his team at the Unity Garden, he used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Riley also made sure not to invoke the names of Jacob Blake, George Floyd or Breonna Taylor when he spoke. He also didn’t challenge police on their tactics or demand a need for change. These have been the cornerstones of protests around the country and they were eliminated completely from the Sooner’s demonstration.
Whether it was on purpose to avoid backlash from fans and boosters or just coincidence, the Oklahoma coach refused to get specific on any incident that led to the team demonstration. He kept the focus on wanting to create unity and support and away the normal triggers that send those who oppose such acts of protests into angry fits.
“We don’t have all the answers either, I know I sure don’t,” Riley said. “But the problems out there are real. And as we talk, as we discussed, we can’t come up with a better solution than unity. I just don’t know how you have unity and not include yourself and every part of your program in that. So it’s a way for us to show that.”
Story & Photos by Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media