George Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer left his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes on May 25 has caused an uproar against racial injustice and police brutality in America.
Millions of people have used their voices and platforms to try to force change, including Oklahoma State athletes.
OSU football players thrust the Cowboys football program into the national spotlight by speaking out against head coach Mike Gundy wearing a One America News T-shirt while posing for a photo with his two sons during a fishing trip in mid-June.
However, OSU athletes already had been using their platforms to voice concerns about societal issues before the coach's OAN T-shirt became national news.
College athletes have power that stems beyond the field of play and several across several sports are using that power to help push the conversation about racial injustice and racial inequality.
Dr. Katrina Overby, who received her master’s degree at Oklahoma State, is a postdoctoral researcher in the school of communication at the Rochester School of Technology. Overby -- who studies race, social media and sports -- said it’s important for college athletes to feel comfortable speaking their minds about societal issues.
“These are individuals, autonomous individuals, outside of just being college athletes,” Overby said. “They are their own person, so they definitely should be (speaking out) if they would like to.”
Multiple athletes, including linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, participated in protests and have used social media as a platform to speak their truths. On June 13, wide receiver Landon Wolf tweeted that he had meetings with the Stillwater police chief and campus police chief.
A video was released on Twitter last month that included Oklahoma State players and coaches addressing racial injustices and encouraging people to help create change.
“Everybody can make change,” safety Kolby Harvell-Peel said in the video. “Regardless of how much power you have or where you are in your life, you can make change.”
Taking action or making a statement about what you believe can invite ridicule or criticism. OSU men’s basketball coach Mike Boynton said he fully supports all of his athletes who choose to speak out, but he encourages them to understand that there isn’t always going to be overwhelming support each time they say something.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, I’m going to support them because that’s what college is supposed to be about,” Boynton said. “Learning about yourself and figuring out how you’re going to move on and impact the rest of society that you’re a part of. That was the way it was for me. ... So I’m happy to see these young people taking some risk because there are certainly some risk involved.”
Incoming freshman basketball player Cade Cunningham, who has 14,800 Twitter followers, was trending on Twitter after the news broke about the OSU postseason ban. He tweeted "Black Lives Matter!" with a fist during that time.
"I knew that was the perfect time to do it because it was something that I really believed in," said Cunningham, who added he was "super happy" with how star running back Chuba Hubbard -- the first to call out Gundy's T-shirt on social media -- has been handling his situation. "But the NCAA sanctions had just came down and I knew everybody was looking at my page waiting for anything. So I feel like that was the best time for me to let my views be known."
Many people across the country are having these important conversations on social media, at work and in their homes. More people continuing to join the conversation drives the mission to create change. Overby said she believes it is important that college athletes are socially conscious and choose to use their platforms to speak on issues.
“You have Black players who can’t separate their racial identity just from what they do as college athletes,” Overby said. “There are several intersections that happen for young Black athletes, period, but then also young Black male athletes.”
College athletes often are admired by individuals young and old, so the actions they take and the content they put on social media get recognized by large numbers of people. The social media influence of college athletes is tremendous. So when All-American Hubbard, who has 32,600 Twitter followers, retweets a video and says, “Please take a few minutes to watch this,” people take notice.
Hubbard tweeted a video that shows how college athletes across the country are coming together for a cause that’s bigger than sports. A group of over 25 athletes across the country put together a two-minute video to speak their minds.
“Us student-athletes will not let this movement go by without using our platform to denounce racial injustice and discrimination and bring awareness to issues that continue to plague our nation,” Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds said in the video. “But we need your help.”
Many of the student-athletes involved have reposted that video on their own Twitter accounts.
“A lot of people happen to follow them and often when they post they get several likes or retweets or reshares,” Overby said. “People are watching what they’re doing and what they’re saying. They, believe it or not, will have some positive influence based on what they’re posting during this moment. I find it important for them to voice their opinions if they want to do so.”
Hubbard was college football’s leading rusher last year and is one of the top returning running backs in the country this season. The native of Canada has become a household name in Canada and in the United States. He has chosen to use his platform to ignite change, as are other college athletes across the country.
“They’re role models for people who look up to them and also want to become college athletes,” Overby said. “(Hubbard is) sort of paving the way for more and more athletes to speak up, especially because he’s a prominent player and I think the others will follow his footsteps and also maybe not be afraid to post what they’re feeling. …We are hoping that we are encouraging all college students socially, racially and that they should be able to voice their opinion. We should be empowering them to do so and listening to whatever it is that they’re saying.”
Hubbard has continued to speak on societal problems and issues he believes need to be changed at Oklahoma State. His initial reaction to Gundy’s T-shirt could be viewed as the catalyst that caused OSU to create its Council for Diversity and Inclusion, which was announced on June 24. Although Hubbard’s status as a prime-time college athlete gives him a big platform, his ending message while on ESPN's "First Take" on June 18 was that everybody has the power to use their voice.
“The biggest thing is just use your voice,” Hubbard said on the television show. “Your platform is powerful. No matter if you’re an All-American, no matter if you’re a walk-on, no matter who you are. Even if you’re just a person that goes to the university as a regular student, use your voice. It’s powerful. That’s the most powerful weapon. I just want everybody to know that. Do what’s right and always believe in your core values and what gets you up every day.”