NORMAN, Okla. — Arms linked. Heavy hearts. And a strong message.
OU’s football team marched from its Oklahoma Memorial Stadium locker room to the nearby Unity Garden along the university’s south oval Friday morning. From left to right, senior defensive back Chanse Sylvie, head coach Lincoln Riley and senior offensive lineman Creed Humphrey stood side-by-side and led the program’s players and staff, all dressed in black, as an act of unity amid racial unrest in the United States.
“We made this march today of solidarity, not because we have the answers to all that's going on in our country right now,” Riley said as his players stood behind him, “but we are a group of people that are hurt, that are scared, frustrated, but motivated to do our part.”
They walked silently to the garden in rows of three, stopped and formed a semi-circle behind Riley as he spoke briefly. The team then observed 57 seconds of silence to honor the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. OU associate head coach Dennis Simmons closed the gathering by leading the group in prayer before the team returned to their original locked-arm formation and walked back to its locker room.
“There's been a lot of buildup to this,” Riley told reporters following the demonstration. “I think our players, I commend them, our players have been a part of potential policy changes, they've been a part of changes within the university and within the athletic department. We always push on our players to try to do more and more and more. That doesn't just apply to the football field. It doesn't just apply to the classroom.”
The racial unrest OU’s program responded to stems from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times on Sunday while attempting to detain him. Protests across the country, especially in sports, soon followed as video of the shooting spread on social media.
The first sports-related protest came Wednesday when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for an NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The rest of the NBA’s Wednesday postseason games, including Game 5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s series against the Houston Rockets, were subsequently postponed. The WNBA, NHL, Major League Soccer and Major Leauge Baseball followed suit with their own sit-outs and demonstrations.
OU’s football program had an emotional team meeting Thursday in light of this week’s event. Although, discussions surrounding racial inequality aren’t new to this week or program. They have been ongoing since players returned to campus in July following multiple incidents of racial injustice in the United States this year.
Riley said the team has frequently provided a platform for players to share their experiences, as wide-ranging as they are.
“Those conversations have been tough,” Riley said. “They've been raw and unfiltered. They have been eye-opening, very emotional, very intense. They've given every person there, not only an opportunity to express themselves but also and maybe more importantly, an opportunity to listen. Listen to what other people have gone through. Their experiences.
“Stop thinking about ourselves every waking second and think about our brothers and our sisters and what they're going through and how we can help. We chose this place [the United Garden] because it symbolizes unity and unity is possible. And it is possible with different backgrounds because I've witnessed it and continue to witness it with this group right here.”
The team finalized its plans to march to the Unity Garden Friday morning on a particularly hot, August day in Norman.
Riley recognized his team’s status as a high-profile college football program. And his hope is to always use their visibility in a positive way.
Friday’s demonstration comes five years after OU’s football team marched in protest to its indoor practice facility, similarly wearing black clothing and linking arms, after a video was shared online of the since-disbanded OU fraternity chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon reciting a racist chant.
Riley, who had not coached a game yet for the Sooners at the time, stood with his players then, just as he did Friday. He saw the positive results the 2015 team’s actions helped achieve on campus, including increased diversity training among students and the creation of a new leadership position, Vice President and Chief of Diversity.
Riley sees the links between then and now, but Friday’s demonstration comes at a “new time” and under “different circumstances.”
The program’s goal is to play whatever role it can in affecting change. And Friday’s statement doesn’t appear to be the last of OU’s efforts.
“It's not gonna change overnight,” Riley said. “It's about taking positive steps, keeping the faith and don't let this be a thing that divides us even further. Why can't this be the thing that brings us all even more together? I've seen that with this team. I saw it [Thursday]. I've seen it on multiple occurrences where something terrible brings us closer together. It's not easy.
“Those are some of the toughest conversations and things to listen to and process and go through as a team that you can ever have, but if all those people in there, again, from all different walks of life can come together and find common ground, why can't that be done on a larger scale? That's our players' perspective and our staff's and that's our hope. We just wanna do our part because it's gonna take everybody.”