NORMAN, Okla.—Ty Darlington does not remember the face or name of his teammate who stood up and spoke first. That part doesn’t matter, he says. The words, coming from a fellow player, are what stuck with Darlington.
In a spring that has been anything but conventional for the Oklahoma football team, Darlington, the Sooners senior center, has been pulled into so many meetings about non-football issues that it’s tough to keep track of the minutes he has spent listening, talking and listening again. The conversations have blurred, but he remembers key moments. Like when a white teammate stood in a players-only meeting and silenced the room with his raw honesty.
“I didn’t come here to be a civil rights activist," the player said. "I came here to play football. But that being said, you guys are my brothers, and I’m going to support you no matter what.”
In the aftermath of a campus-wide scandal that sparked a national conversation about race and drew attention from coast to coast, it was the Sooners’ decision to stand together—literally—that can, and should, be the lasting image of a movement that will surely be remembered for years.
On the afternoon of March 7, Oklahoma had wrapped up its first practice of the 2015 spring season, bouncing off the field with renewed energy. This was the start of a new era in Norman, as 17th-year coach Bob Stoops had shaken up his staff this off-season by dismissing a couple coaches, bringing in new faces and shuffling others to different spots. “Best practice we’ve had since I’ve been here,” senior linebacker Eric Striker says. “Up-tempo, energetic, a lot more fun than usual,” says redshirt junior cornerback Zack Sanchez, who noticed a “new, big chip” on the shoulder of each player, the result of a disappointing ’14 campaign in which the Sooners went 8-5.
But that high came crashing down within 24 hours. On March 8 a cellphone video surfaced of members of the now-disbanded Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter at Oklahoma chanting on a bus of how they would never accept a black member, even going so far as to reference a lynching.
Darlington, who grew up in Apopka, Fla., with a football coach father and former cheerleader mother, says, "I'm not a black male on this campus. It doesn’t hit me the same way." Still, he recognized the feelings the repulsive video would generate. He knew immediately, "this could be very divisive for our team and our campus.”
That night Darlington, a team captain and member of the NCAA governance group, talked with Striker and Sanchez. They all understood this was going to become a big issue—for everyone.
Reaction was swift. On the night the video surfaced, Striker posted an 18-second, profanity-laced response to Snapchat in which he accused the same people who sang those venomous lyrics on the bus of congratulating athletes after big wins. He apologized for his language the next morning in another video, but he stood by his overall message. He opened up to a local reporter about his frustration, pain and experience as a black man on Oklahoma’s campus and in society. “I feel like as a young black person, I’m always looked at as a threat,” he told The Oklahoman. “We intimidate people without them even getting to know us.”
Behind closed doors the Sooners gathered privately for hours, meetings that often grew heated. So many emotions bubbled to the surface that “there were times people were about to fight each other,” Darlington says. Striker recalls teammates “fussing and arguing” as black players tried to explain what it feels like to discover people devalue you because of your skin color. Some didn’t understand the severity of “what this actually meant to our black teammates,” Striker says, so he tried to paint a vivid picture of his reality.
Meetings reached a crescendo when, in a scene Striker describes as “like a movie,” a player stood and screamed, “SHUT UP!” Players knew they had to come together. Amid a time that could have torn them apart, the Sooners chose to present a united front.
On Monday, March 9, with the support of Stoops, his staff and university president David Boren (who condemned the fraternity and expelled two students identified as leading the chant), Striker, Darlington and their teammates dressed in black and walked with arms linked through campus in silent protest. Their message was simple: “This is what we deal with every day,” Striker says. And they’d had enough.
Striker and Darlington talk of late-night meetings that stretched past 1 a.m. and decisions from team leaders not to attend practice or class. “We want to play football,” Darlington says. “There was never a point when we were sitting out because we wanted time off.” What they craved was a campus that understood they weren’t going to downplay or ignore hateful, racist behavior.
One month after the protest, wearing basketball shorts and a T-shirt adorned with a photo of Muhammad Ali—a man Striker admires for his activist work outside the boxing ring more than his punishing style in it—Striker says he had no choice but to speak up. And really, it was not out of character for him to do so.
“As a black man, I am not going to stand for this,” says the political science major, who likes playing devil’s advocate in classes and thinks daily about what he can do to inspire others. As a child he told his mother he was going to change the world. This, he figures, is just the beginning.
“Football is not forever,” Striker says. “When we leave this game, these are the things we’re gonna have to deal with. We had to deal with this issue now.”
Striker had planned to use the spring to “get back to Oklahoma football,” which to him means putting championship banners in the rafters, not Ls in the win-loss column. After a 2014 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, the Sooners were hyped last preseason as an inaugural College Football Playoff contender. An 8-5 record wasn’t just unacceptable, it didn't fit with Oklahoma's storied history. “We could have gone 0-13 last season,” Sanchez deadpans, “and people are still going to expect a national championship this year." Fixing that was supposed to start last month. The focus was set to be on the quarterback race, a new offensive scheme and a defense that wilted too many times last fall.
Instead, March and April have been peppered with media reports about activism and questions about what’s next, as Striker, Darlington and the Sooners realize the power of their platform. Perhaps students aren’t fully equipped to become faces of a movement, but because they lived it every day they had the influence to be heard. “It may speak to the values of our society, but people listen to us,” Darlington says.
Now, though, the team is O.K. with turning its attention to field. Oklahoma’s spring game begins Saturday at 2 p.m., a welcome distraction from all the peripheral action that has taken place over the last five weeks. Players say football has become their escape, a sacred few hours each week when they pay no mind to skin color. There has been more trash talk than any time Sanchez can remember, with guys playfully jawing that they’re about to humiliate the teammate lined up across from them. “Practice has been our release,” Sanchez says. “On the field, we’re back in our element.”
Getting comfortable with new assistants was expedited, too. “Intimacy is built very quickly in times of crisis,” Darlington says. “We got to know the new staff on a very personal level.” Navigating off-field issues with new faces was never a problem for Stoops, who is “so proud” of how his team and university handled the situation.
Darlington believes there will be lasting ripple effects: Eighteen-hour days together can’t help but bond you. “This is going to unite us forever, the memory that we did something that mattered,” Darlington says. “The goal of it was never to make us a better football team, but I do think it’s brought our team closer—and that’s going to pay dividends in the summer, fall and beyond.”
Striker, who burst onto the scene after dominating Alabama in the Sooners’ 2014 Sugar Bowl win, wanted to spend the spring reaching for more: more sacks, more tackles, more of a leadership position. He found it in an unexpected role, as the face of a student movement. Determined to be defined by something more than his football talent—he was named All-Big 12 in ’14—Striker’s passion has filtered through the Sooners this spring. In meetings, players insisted on setting aside personal development and NFL draft stock in favor of making social progress.
It's been a spring full of the unconventional. But in eight months, Oklahoma's players hope it will provide the foundation for success—both on and off the field.