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A publication of the University of Oklahoma Foundation

Student-athletes show leadership on and off the field

The Sooner football team is a determined bunch when they put their minds to something. Like beating Texas, for instance. Somewhere between the end of regulation play and the first of four overtimes, the Sooners decided with one collective brain that Texas was not going to win.  Whatever it took. 

Goal line score on fourth down? Check. Blocked field goal attempt? Check. An interception to seal the deal? Check. The 53-45 final score after a five-hour marathon set the record for the highest combined points in the history of the Red River Showdown. 

As exhilarating as that victory was, the Sooner football team’s most impressive feat this fall might be using their combined strength and courage to support a main pillar of OU President Joe Harroz’s long-awaited strategic plan. (To see the plan, click here.) 

One of those five pillars includes “embracing diversity in ideas, experiences and identity.”  Outside of gender, the OU football team may be the highest-profile and most diverse group on campus. Players come in all colors and sizes, from small towns and big cities. They have different majors and life experiences, different political and spiritual beliefs. They dance to rap, country, rock and, sometimes, the blues.  

From left, Chanse Sylvie, Spencer Rattler, Lincoln Riley and Creed Humphrey lead the march from the football facilities to the Unity Garden of OU's south oval on Aug. 28.                                                                                                                           Trey Young/OU Daily

After several emotional meetings discussing instances of racial instances across the nation, the varied personalities that compose the Sooner football team decided they wanted to make a public statement. On Aug. 28, side by side with cornerback Chanse Sylvie and center Creed Humphrey, head coach Lincoln Riley led the way from the football facilities to the heart of campus. The team followed, arms linked in a show of solidarity. Their destination? The Unity Garden on the south oval. 

 “We chose this place because it symbolizes unity, and unity is possible, and it is possible with people of different backgrounds because I’ve witnessed it and continue to witness it with this group right here," said Riley.

Ten days later, Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, announced that the Big 12 was launching an anti-racism, anti-hate initiative called the “Unity Campaign.”  

Whether partially responsible for the Big 12 effort or not, Sooner football players have been promoting peaceful change since last spring by stepping up to microphones and using social media to initiate conversations.

 Chanse Sylvie is one of those voices. Sylvie, who has a degree in political science and is working on his master’s in Global Public Affairs with a concentration in Security, released an essay on Twitter this summer offering steps for reform in American law enforcement. He has since met with Oklahoma lawmakers and the Norman Police Department to discuss the plan. 

That same week safety Justin Broiles stood on the steps of Evans Hall at an anti-racism rally and told a crowd, “Violence, that’s not the answer. Burning stuff down is not the answer. We’ve got to educate ourselves … It’s our duty to get out and vote. We’re the ones that can change it.”

“[There’s] no way to grow within the confines of comfort,” added Humphrey in a tweet. “I urge us as a community to embrace the uncomfortable talks between each other, to help grow and improve together.”

Players have taken criticism for their activism—an often-unintended consequence of speaking out, says Belinda Hyppolite, OU vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

“I think they [the players] were prepared for that and they still chose to lean into this experience as a group. Their coaches were very supportive, and players know ‘there are people who have our backs.’ That’s critically important and I think Joe C. and his team have done a phenomenal job of grappling with everything that has come up.”

“We want to be part of the solution,” says OU Athletics Director Joe Castiglione. To that end the department created “Sooners for Humanity,” a program designed to raise awareness and initiate conversations on matters of race and social justice.

"We got lives outside of our jerseys," says Tre Brown, the Tulsa cornerback celebrated for his game-ending interception that resulted in a Sooners victory over Texas. "Don’t look at us as only football players, look at us like we’re human beings, because that’s what we are. 

Junior defensive back Brendan Radley-Hiles says that communication with people who disagree with you is key to moving forward. 

“You can’t move things single-handed. It takes coming together, communicating, getting your feelings and expressions and experiences out, putting everything on the table. As players and the things we put out on Twitter, we try to speak to things that are really meaningful in this world right now and I feel like we’ve been able to do that. Fans speak their minds as well. It’s a conversation.”

In a public service announcement sponsored by the Big 12, Riley and more than half a dozen OU players including Delarrin Turner-Yell, Austin Stogner, Drake Stoops and Adrian Ealy ask fans to join them “in their commitment to a world where each of us is treated equally.”

At a press conference on Sept. 9, Riley said he appreciated the support from the Big 12. “I think it’s a great thing, and I can’t speak for other teams in the conference, but for our team this is about taking care of one another, and that’s one thing our team has been unanimous on and it doesn’t matter if it’s a black player, a white player, a Hispanic player, you name it.  

“The only message our team wants to send is that we believe there can be unity and we want there to be steps taken and we want there to be peaceful change.” 

With so many young men willing to take up the challenge of having those hard conversations and bringing people together, now may be the time, as the late OU President George Lynn Cross once said, to build a university of which the football team can be proud.

To send a comment on this story to the editor, click here. All letters will be considered for publication unless otherwise noted by the author. Please include name, year of graduation, if applicable, city and state. 

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