Third Place Writing – Sports

Brady Vardeman

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University of Oklahoma
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Oklahoma football: How SAE fueled an OU turnaround

By Brady Vardeman

This story is the second part in the series.

The squish-squash of shoes on wet pavement and the sound of steady rain were all that could be heard as the 105 members of OU’s football team marched arm-in-arm into their indoor practice facility March 9, 2015.

Joined by Bob Stoops, assistant coaches and athletic director Joe Castiglione, they were scheduled to begin practice shortly. But no one was dressed for it. Instead, on this Monday afternoon, the demonstrators wore mostly black from head to toe.

The night before, a video surfaced on social media showing members of OU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity participating in a racist chant.

“There will never be a n—– SAE,” it rang through a bus led by two members, later identified as Parker Rice and Levi Petitt, with fists in the air.

The outrage spurred by those words created two weeks of unrest at the University of Oklahoma — a period dotted with hostility, demonstrations and protest. As national media got hold of the story, the debate over racism on college campuses in America was rekindled.

For OU football players, many of whom are among the most prominent African Americans on a campus that is 70 percent white, it was a moment of anger and reflection. But also, coming off a disappointing 8-5 season which prompted a flurry of coaching changes and questions about whether Bob Stoops still had what it takes to keep the Sooners among college football’s elite, it was a test.

The team could further fracture or find strength in facing difficult conversations America often avoids.

“You talk about what makes somebody great. I’m going to just use this — what makes a president great? We argue what made FDR great,” Eric Striker, a senior linebacker and the team’s most outspoken member, said. “Was it FDR’s leadership or was it the Great Depression?”

From that tumultuous offseason to a double-overtime win at Tennessee to bouncing back from a loss to Texas, chances for greatness have been thrust upon Oklahoma many times over the last year.

None, however, compares to the moment the Sooners faced that Monday when they stood united and did not practice.

Nine months later, several OU players agreed the Sooners might not be where they are today — ranked No. 4 with a Big 12 title under its belt and heading to the College Football Playoff — if the SAE incident hadn’t happened.

“You need an adverse situation,” Striker said, “to bring the greatness out of people.”

Around four hours after the video surfaced, Striker posted a Snapchat story. He was shirtless, angry and speaking directly to OU’s greek system.

“The same motherfuckers talking about ‘racism don’t exist’ be the same motherfuckers shaking our hand, giving us hugs, telling them how you really love us. Fuck you phony-ass, fraud-ass bitches,” he yelled into his phone’s camera.

The next day, Striker apologized both in class and in a video posted to teammate Charles Tapper’s Twitter account. He said he regretted using profanity but his message remained unchanged.

Soon, many other student-athletes joined Striker in taking a stance on the issue, including the 104 other members of the football team.

Senior team captain Ty Darlington said the team first met as a whole to discuss what happened the night the video leaked.

How should they respond? Should the team get involved at all?

“We realized very quickly you can’t have 105 guys agree on anything completely,” he said. “You had guys that felt very strongly. Everyone agreed what happened was wrong. It was that there were all sorts of opinions on what our role should be in dealing with it.”

The team deliberated from Sunday night until Wednesday. Meetings lasted hours, including one that began at 2 p.m. and didn’t wrap up until 1 a.m. Players met when and where they could when the larger meetings adjourned — houses, football facilities, day, night. It didn’t matter.

There were tears. Screaming. Nearly physical altercations.

“There’s not many guys that are going to stand up, make an eloquent speech and then pass the mic to the next guy,” Darlington said.

On Tuesday, several football players, along with student-athletes from other sports, lined the South Oval on campus, holding small pieces of paper bearing an #OUnited hashtag. A non-athlete representative of a black student group began walking up and down the lines of people. He shouted words of encouragement, attempting to unite the messages from non-athlete students and football players.

As Stoops arrived to the demonstration to join his players, he was pulled aside by team leaders. They didn’t want their message lumped together with the non-athlete group. They had something different to say and wanted it to be heard loud and clear.

According to Ayana O’Neal, a black soccer player, more than racism, the athletes wanted to address growing tensions with OU fraternity life.

“For a lot of us, it’s an opportunity to mend those bonds,” she said.

One football player announced it was time to “take it back to our house.” The athletes filed towards Lindsey Street, marched east before turning north on Jenkins Ave. and finally congregating outside the Switzer Center.

There, they huddled in prayer. A black counselor from the athletic department spoke to the group about remaining united, regardless of race, sex or background. She encouraged the athletes to avoid letting their message splinter.

“Everybody had their own opinion of what’s the best thing to do and we sort of had to say, ‘Look, we can’t differentiate between who we listen to and who we don’t, so we’re just going to keep the doors closed on everything and we’re going to make a decision on our own,” Darlington said. “Like it, hate it, but it’s going to be us.”

That Tuesday afternoon was a turning point. Despite intense debates, the football team chose to remain united under one message rather than go separate ways. No one deviated.

Wide receiver Dede Westbrook had only been on campus for two months before the incident. He knew what he saw in the video was wrong but said it didn’t bother him as much as some of his teammates because of where he grew up.

“I’m from Texas, and I’m from deep into Texas,” Westbrook said. “You come around that every now and again. Whenever it happened, I wasn’t too thrilled about the situation but the guys around me — you know, I’m on a football team — and these guys are from all over the country. So they take it (as)offensive.

“Extremely offensive.”

At one point, offensive lineman Sam Grant stood up in one of the meetings behind closed doors.

“He’s a big country boy from Ohio that shoots guns on the weekends and is going to be an engineer and drives a big F-250. A lot of the stereotypes of a big white dude,” Darlington said.

Grant wasn’t there to force his opinion — just the opposite. According to Darlington, Grant said he wasn’t into activism or taking stands. However, he was willing to throw that out the window to remain united with his team.

“To hear a guy like that stand up and say, ‘Look, I may not feel the same way as you on some things, but I’m willing to put that aside for all of us to act as a family,’ Darlington said. “That type of deal really brought everyone together.”

Before SAE, the team elected seven leaders — Trevor Knight, Ty Darlington, Zack Sanchez, Sterling Shepard, Nila Kasitati, Eric Striker and Charles Tapper. The leadership wasn’t created to wade through political and racial swamps. It was the result of a disappointing 2014 season and a 40-6 loss to Clemson in the bowl game.

Spearheading a group of 105 young men through the turmoil of something like SAE was never on the radar. But when the time came, it was just what the team needed.

“We had seven guys that were already set up in a way that we were ready to deal with it. That wasn’t why we set that up. We set that up so we could win football games,” Darlington said. “We were positioned in a way where we could make decisions on the team and that type of thing.”

After the demonstration on the South Oval, the football leadership prioritized putting out a clear message. Wednesday night, they finished drafting a statement, which they released on Twitter the next morning. It called for both campus and nationwide change as well as further investigation into the incident and punishment for those involved.

“The two students that have been expelled are only a symptom of a larger disease, a disease perpetuated by the leadership of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” the statement said. “The chant was not invented by the two that led it, but was taught to underclassmen by people of higher authority.”

The statement also said the team would return to practice a week and a half later, March 23, the first day after spring break.

The decision to not practice demonstrated the players’ dedication to their cause. It wasn’t as though they were coming off a successful season. With young talent and a new offense to learn, the team need all the time together on the field it could get.

Still, a united front was the players’ top priority.

In the end, the missed practices didn’t matter. The closeness forged during the SAE incident might have benefitted the Sooners more than any time on a football field could have.

“If we don’t (speak out), who is?” Sanchez said. “Especially, being young, you probably have the biggest voice more than anybody. Especially college kids. You’re educated. Football players — you’re in the light.

“It shows that we’re not just robots on a football field.”

Striker said this is the tightest-knit group he’s been a part of at OU. Tapper said every player is like a brother. According to Sanchez, it’s impossible to compare the team’s chemistry today against a year ago.

It all goes back to those meetings in the spring, where 105 young men exposed their hearts to one another for the first time.

“Everybody knew everything about each other — things that you would never tell a lot of people in the world, these guys on this team know,” Tapper said. “These guys know a lot about my life that I would never share with anybody.”

It’s a far cry from the team that walked off the field in Orlando, Florida, at the end of last season with heads hung and arms crossed. Few, if any, players had tears in their eyes. It was a group that had grown accustomed to losing and seemingly without any power to stop it.

The last time anyone saw them on a football field before SAE, the Sooners were best described by one word — broken.

Fast forward to Sept. 12 and Oklahoma is on the road at Tennessee. The Sooners are down by two scores in the fourth quarter and 102,455 fans are screaming at the top of their lungs.

“Nothing I’ve ever experienced or ever will experience will compare to Tennessee,” Darlington said.

In a dire situation with little hope, Darlington leaned over to Striker on the sideline and told him the Sooners weren’t leaving Neyland Stadium without a win. It took two overtimes, but OU walked away with a 31-24 victory.

“It’s already enough from the hard work and the workouts and the things you don’t see but, on top of that, what happened in the spring — it’s like, ‘We came too far to lose it now,’ Striker said.

In the aftermath, OU could have easily let racism on campus tear the team apart for good. In fact, it almost did.

But when crisis came to campus and presented a chance for greatness, the Sooners didn’t shy away.

“These two weeks — it was awful. It was terrible. It was something that I wished, every second of it, I could pass it to somebody else to deal with,” Darlington said. “Beyond what we’re able to do here, or if whether we’re able to put another banner on this wall behind you, we’re going to remember that forever. And I think that was a big step to uniting this team.”