Mike Gundy seems to have won this time, in spite of himself

June 19, 2020

Oklahoma State’s football players fumbled. At a moment when they possessed tremendous leverage over their program’s coaches and administrators thanks to the coronavirus crisis and head coach Mike Gundy’s propensity to align himself with racists, they announced they were satisfied changes are in the works and they’re back to the business of playing football under those coaches and administrators.

As someone who starts from the proposition that the NCAA ought to be dynamited because it’s an unfair cartel that prevents athletes from earning real money while funneling that money into the pockets of administrators and coaches, I’m disappointed that Oklahoma State’s athletes ultimately didn’t get Gundy fired and — it appears so far — stopped short of actions that would prompt dramatic change. That said, it’s completely understandable why men like Chuba Hubbard and Amen Ogbongbemiga might stand down so quickly, since an entire system has been set up to discourage them from standing up for themselves, sending the message that their professional futures would be at risk if they attempt to wreck the system.

In many other contexts, Gundy’s actions the past few months would have him severely sanctioned, if not let go, and in most other big time sports contexts, he would certainly be gone. First, at the start of April, he gave an extended statement that referred to “the Chinese virus” (dog whistle), included misleading characterizations about how different states had reacted to the coronavirus threat, downplayed how dangerous the pandemic was (irresponsible), described One America News Network as a straightforwardly unbiased news source (completely wrong), displayed a frightening misunderstanding of the risks involved with contracting the virus, and more.

Then, when Hubbard saw a photo of Gundy wearing an OAN t-shirt and tweeted that this was unacceptable, Gundy and Oklahoma State tried to put out the fire, but ended up looking incompetent when Gundy appeared in a video with Hubbard ostensibly to end things right there, only he failed to actually apologize. Two more videos later, and Gundy still appears like a guy who’s trying to figure out how to be left alone rather than confront the root problem.

Finally, an incident from three decades ago was resurfaced that plays directly into the narrative that Gundy may not be the kind of guy young people of color would want to be around. Gundy played quarterback for Oklahoma State, and multiple opponents in a game against Colorado recounted that he dropped N-bombs at them. It doesn’t help matters that Gundy literally employed the I Have Black Friends defense.

Joel Anderson, himself a former D-I college football player, wrote for Slate that this kind of culture clash will continue until players take direct aim at pocketbooks and boycott games with a sustained effort. I agree, but there is one more element that Anderson doesn’t mention and I think will be essential if a group of players wanted to boycott: the leaders can’t be the top stars.

Hubbard is Oklahoma State’s most prominent player, a guy who could have entered the NFL draft this year and likely would have been an early-round pick. Right now, players have leverage on the program because that have multiple ways to excuse themselves from playing: Gundy has aligned himself with racists and the coronavirus crisis means that joining the team is a risk that a big chunk of the country understands to be a risk. But as soon as Hubbard came back, the program gained leverage on him again because they now have extraordinary influence on his professional prospects.

Therefore, the players who should lead labor actions against college football programs ought to be prominent players facing long odds of catching on in the NFL. The prime example is Kain Colter, a do-everything quarterback-slotback who co-captained Northwestern and spearheaded the team’s effort to gain union recognition in 2014.

Those are the players that college programs cannot do without, yet do not have ruining their NFL futures to hold over them. Someday, a group of those players who may harbor NFL dreams but realistically understand college ball is the end of the line for them will band together in order to improve their own conditions and conditions for players who come after them. And they will affect dramatic change, regardless of whether their head coach has made a fool of himself and thus given them an opening to pounce.

(Photo: "ISU vs. OSU 2019-10-26" by Daniel Hartwig. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)