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Picture Painted in Stillwater Not One of Abuse but Distance and Unavailability

A closer look at what’s going on at Oklahoma State.

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It’s been a surreal week of covering Oklahoma State football and athletics, maybe the most surreal of my decade of covering this stuff. There are so many angles in all of this that it’s sometimes difficult to know where one story ends and the other begins.

In talking to a number of different people who have various relationships with OSU and OSU football, a snapshot of what all of this looks like began to emerge for me over the course of the last few days. We certainly don’t have the full picture of everything that has ever gone on — of course, who does? — but one theme seemed to run through the conversations we’ve been having with folks.

After talking to a number of people who have at one point been extremely close to the Oklahoma State football organization, the picture that is painted is not one of systemic abuse by Mike Gundy or any sort of racial tension but rather one of very little relationship at all. People we talked to noted his distance as a head-scratcher given their proximity to him. This does not seem to be a small-scale one-off issue either.

Some of that is unsurprising, and some of it is even probably good. If the leader of a 200-person organization was intimately involved in every detail with every person, that would be psychotic. Some of that distance is purposeful and helpful, but the flip side of that is when you’re maybe more distant than people expect and you tend to publicly say or do whatever you want to say and do, it can become problematic.

This becomes very obvious when you think through even how this week went down. When you’re a star or superstar within the organization and don’t have a built-up trust with that organization’s leader, it becomes very easy to assume the worst when you hear that person talk about snowflakes and wear OAN shirts. And then one issue exacerbates the other. When you trust someone — we all know this to be true — you often assume the best in a situation of conflict. When you don’t trust someone, it’s often the opposite.

This is why I holler so often about power and its tentacles. I know some of you are so sick of hearing about it, but to me this is not a story about racism or abuse but rather a story about power. How you’re using it, what it’s doing to you and how it affects your organization. Power engenders distance and isolation. That, more than anything, seems to be what this is all about. This idea is why I’ve often pushed back so hard against some of Gundy’s ridiculous verbiage and mini-rants. Taken in a silo, they don’t seem like that big of a deal. When you haven’t engendered deeper relationship or trust? Well, they can become concerning, especially to the kids you’re leading.

Former players I talked to, they don’t think Gundy is racist or even a bad guy. On the record or off the record. I haven’t talked to everyone of course, but I talked to a few people who were fairly close to it all. Instead, they seemed to not have experienced much interaction with him at all. That leads to stuff like this, which I heard from one former star, “Gundy is either an idiot or has a blatant disregard for the state of social matters.”

We know he’s not an idiot, but distance and isolation — relational separation between you and the people around you — can lead to disregard for the state of social matters. In other words, it can lead to disconnect. Because even if you embrace some of the things Gundy has embraced over the years, a deeper connection to the people you’re leading — so many of whom are Black — should certainly lead you to not embrace them so publicly or so aggressively.

One former player told me he didn’t care that he knows Gundy is conservative or that he’s probably a Trump supporter but he very much cares about how — when flaunted so publicly — some of Gundy’s stances affect the people in his organization.

“As the head coach of OSU however he is entrusted with guiding, leading, and caring for over 100 kids with a large percentage of them being Black.”

Again, the issue is not the shirt, it’s what the shirt represents. And when you seemingly don’t have the trust of your best players then you don’t get the benefit of the doubt from them. That reality might be an even bigger problem than wearing the shirt itself!

Interestingly, based on people I’ve talked to, as well as what Deion Imade told Robert Allen this week, some of what’s happened this week has at times been less about Gundy and more about how people have reacted to it all. Here’s what one former player told me.

“Too many fans have posted hateful, distasteful and racist comments toward Chuba and players alike for voicing their concerns.”

That’s essentially what Imade said.

“Some of the things that I’m hearing from the fans and the alumni are very disheartening,” Imade told Allen. “You’re not doing Mike Gundy any good, the team any good, if you are defending what that shirt represents.”

It’s been a very bad week in Oklahoma State world for pretty much everyone involved. Gundy has been (still is?) on tilt, and unless you believe they can let him go with cause then OSU is either stuck with a situation that will linger for a long time or will have to fork over $17 million to move on. Either one is a steep price to pay for the best coach in school history.

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