Sitting in front of a video screen emblazoned with the Oklahoma State logo, head football coach Mike Gundy stared into the camera on Tuesday and tried to quell a national controversy of his own making.
A day earlier, Gundy was facing a full-blown revolt after a picture of him wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the far-right One America News Network circulated on social media. Among other offenses, one of the network’s anchors has described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “criminal front group” and another has called it “a farce.”
Gundy’s best player, running back Chuba Hubbard, responded by threatening to boycott team activities and quickly earned the support of a number of his teammates and former Oklahoma State players.
Hubbard’s predecessor, current Baltimore Ravens running back Justice Hill, retweeted Hubbard and added: “OSU Athletics and University need major change. 100% support brotha.”
Too bad their fledgling insurrection lasted little more than two hours.
Later that day, Gundy and Hubbard appeared in a video together—the latter’s arms folded in a seemingly defensive posture for its entirety, but still he was there. “I’m looking forward to making some changes,” Gundy said to the camera, “and it starts at the top with me.”
That’s how Gundy found himself recording his solo mea culpa on Tuesday, only 26½ hours after his program threatened to come apart. “These meetings with our team have been eye-opening and will result in positive changes for Oklahoma State football,” he said, wearing a decidedly more appropriate black Oklahoma State polo shirt. “I sincerely hope the Oklahoma State family, near and far, will accept my humble apology as we move forward.”
And just like that, the program quickly closed ranks around Gundy. The team’s Twitter account retweeted several approving messages from players, including Hubbard. “A step in the right direction,” Hubbard called it.
That’s doubtful. Hubbard might have no way of knowing it—he’s only 21 and from Edmonton, Canada, after all—but he and his teammates had already squandered much of their power by publicly forgiving their coach so quickly and agreeing to get back to work. “My teammates and I have all agreed we will go ahead and resume all workouts and activities,” tweeted Amen Ogbongbemiga, a senior linebacker, soon after Gundy’s video apology.
This particular kind of futility is familiar. In October 2013, Grambling State’s football team refused to board buses for a game at Jackson State University. The team complained of rundown athletic facilities, long bus trips, and a lack of institutional support, among other things. The players’ boycott forced the school to forfeit the game, a move Jackson State—which was celebrating homecoming that weekend—claimed cost the school millions of dollars.
It was, as far as anyone could tell at the time, an unprecedented flex of college athlete power. And it seemed to portend a wave of bigger, even more impactful expressions of player solidarity. “Everyone on the team wanted to play, but to get what we feel is right, we had to take a stand and make sure our voice was heard,” Naquan Smith, leader of the team’s boycott, said then. But the boycott didn’t last.
A couple weeks later, I traveled to Grambling to report on what had become of the players and their dire situation. They had already returned to practice and had even played two more games, including their first victory of what had been a truly awful season.
Grambling—a small historically black college in northern Louisiana—had once been one of the nation’s best football programs. Legendary head coach Eddie Robinson finished his career in 1997 as the winningest coach in college football history, and he sent more than 200 players from his rural powerhouse into professional football. But when I arrived on campus in late October 2013, the school and the program were shells of their former selves.
Louisiana’s budget problems had taken a toll on Grambling. The school’s yearly support from the state went from $32 million to $14 million in just four years, and the athletic department had already cut $335,000 from its overall budget of $6.8 million in 2013 alone. I found a campus in distress, just like the players had said. But by the time I got there, they and the administration were done talking about it. “Maybe later. Sorry,” the school spokesman told me in an email.
There would be no later. Grambling’s administration had coaxed the players into returning to practice, telling them they’d work on the upgrades. In other words, they were looking forward to making some changes. I never got the chance to speak with a player or an administrator during my week in town. The boycott was over and the focus was back on finishing the season.
A year later, despite an improving record on the field, there was little evidence that the underlying financial problems had been addressed. “We’re struggling, still,” former Grambling player Ezil Bibbs told USA Today. “It’s always gonna be no money, budget cuts and how are you gonna make it work?” Just like at Oklahoma State, returning to football got in the way of the players’ activism, which is part of a playbook that coaches and administrations depend on.
“Unless they’re really willing to boycott, there aren’t going to be changes,” said Louis Moore, history professor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., and author of We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.
Referring to Oklahoma State, Moore pointed out how quickly programs move to present a united front. Similar situations at Iowa, Clemson, and Florida State, where players took the step of speaking out in recent weeks about their mistreatment and strained relationships with the coaching staff, ended the same way: with players coming to the defense of their coaches in public statements and talk of looking forward. And even at the University of Texas, where players demanded the school rename buildings named after segregationists and discontinue the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which has ties to minstrel shows, they still haven’t publicly threatened to sit out any games.
“The moment [the players] push back, the master has his arms wrapped around them,” Moore told me. “I don’t see any major changes coming out of this.”
The coach’s interest, and the school’s, is always to get back to money-making games. This week, players returned to campuses all around the country preparing themselves for a season that almost certainly shouldn’t be played. Just look at the early numbers. Two weeks ago at Oklahoma State, three players tested positive for the virus. Last week, the University of Houston suspended workouts after six players tested positive. And Thursday at the University of Texas, news reports emerged that 13 players tested positive — an uptick from the six reported the day before.
The drive to play in spite of these uncertain—if not altogether dangerous—circumstances is where the hypocrisy between the institutional promises to do better and the treatment of the players is most apparent. Gundy’s shirt, and his alleged use of racial slurs against players in the past, tell us so much more than his stiff apology. “Black lives matter to me. Our players matter to me,” Gundy said, as his college-aged players got back to work amid a pandemic that he’s previously referred to using the racist term, “the Chinese virus.”
If only Gundy’s players would learn the most important lesson from Grambling’s brief boycott seven years ago: Going back to work accomplishes little but returning the power to the institution. The games need not go on, if the players don’t want them to. There’s still time to make Gundy prove that their lives matter.
Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen, below, that features a segment on college football activism. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.