For a moment, the societal unrest accompanying the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks was set to rock one of the most imbalanced structures in American athletics. Six hours later, the power dynamics of college football were clear.
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, a unanimous All-American who rushed for 21 touchdowns in 2019, said that he wouldn’t be doing anything “until things change” after a photo surfaced of head coach Mike Gundy wearing a t-shirt of One America News Network (OAN). The rightwing network, a favorite of Donald Trump and one that has been linked to Russian propaganda, was recently the subject of a long John Oliver segment after some of its questionable reporting about Covid-19.
Several teammates supported Hubbard, implying that they would also refrain from any team activities until “change” happened.
No more than a few hours later, Hubbard and Gundy appeared in a video together making amends. Hubbard apologized for tweeting about the situation instead of confronting Gundy directly. Gundy acknowledged a “sensitive situation,” but didn’t apologize.
As one of the best players in college football, Hubbard forced Oklahoma State into a difficult (if fleeting) position. Could he have helped depose a wildly successful but reckless head coach? Or does the power structure of college football prevent players from affecting the behaviors of their coaches?
This seems ridiculous. Hubbard was offended by a t-shirt?
It’s not Gundy’s first controversial political statement. In April, Gundy referred to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” and argued that his players, aged 18-22, should return to school since they were young and healthy enough to fight it. In his eyes, they needed to return because “we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.” Later in that conference call, Gundy celebrated OAN as “refreshing” because “there’s no commentary; there is no left; there is no right” from a network that, for example, said that one way to help the black community was to “get involved and encourage black men to be fathers and provide for their families.”
Gundy also blamed “liberalism” and entitlement after a player transferred schools and described Twitter as “a platform for people who are sitting at home drawing an unemployment check sitting in front of a keyboard”.
Gundy sounds like a liability. Why does he still have a job?
Because he wins. Despite competing against far richer and more accomplished programs like Texas and Oklahoma, Gundy has led Oklahoma State to 14 consecutive bowl games and won over two-thirds of his games since he took over the program in 2005. He’s also an alumnus and one of the most decorated quarterbacks in school history. That might be why the school president and athletic director offered lifeless statements before Gundy and Hubbard released their unconvincing reconciliation video.
OK. But his players sound like they’re pretty tired of his antics.
Considering Gundy’s laundry list of embarrassing public comments, it’s unlikely that Hubbard was upset solely about Gundy’s shirt. On Monday, several players indicated that the program needs “major change.” While a host of college coaches provided statements condemning the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the end of May, Gundy didn’t even mention Floyd, Black Lives Matter or anything beyond the “sensitive situation” on Monday. His refusal to address the situation might not thrill any recruits – and most recruits are African American – who were considering playing college football for Oklahoma State.
But you can’t fire a coach over his political beliefs, right?
Pretty much. For one, Oklahoma State definitely doesn’t want to fire Gundy. Secondly, it’s a public university located in a state where more than 65% of people voted for Trump in 2016 (only Wyoming and West Virginia were more pro-Trump). The players may not like their coach’s political views, but there’s a strong chance that many Oklahoma State donors do. Had the school fired Gundy over advertising a news network – even a dishonest one like OAN – the coach would likely have a strong case for wrongful termination. If Oklahoma State is going to get rid of Gundy, it won’t be because his politics makes his players uncomfortable – it will be because future players won’t want to play for a coach who they feel is regressive and hostile. Since every player can only play four years, college football is all about recruiting and maintaining a talent pipeline, and that pipeline is mainly African American. This episode will allow opposing coaches to ask recruits if they want to play for Gundy, a man who loves a news network hostile to Black Lives Matter.
So the coach didn’t apologize but the player did?
Welcome to college football. Gundy makes an annual salary of $5m while Hubbard, one of the best players in the game, can’t earn a wage as a college football player. Had Hubbard maintained that he wouldn’t play until Gundy was fired or forced to apologize, he risked being suspended from the team and losing the chance to play in 2020. It would be too late for him to transfer schools and would have had to apply for eligibility in the NFL supplemental draft, where he would have signed for a paltry wage if he was even selected. Returning to Oklahoma State was his best option to maximize his future earnings.
As the best player on the team, Hubbard had more leverage than anybody to try and force an actual reckoning from Gundy. That he was the lone person to apologize for the incident indicates how much leverage he had.
So it’s the same as it ever was?
There are a few signs that, in the wake of the protests across America, players are starting to have their voices heard. Players at Iowa made allegations that there strength and conditioning coach, Chris Doyle, mistreated African Americans on the team. On Monday, Doyle agreed to leave the team. It should be pointed out though that Doyle received a $1m payoff, which is more than any of the players will earn from their college careers.
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