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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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There have always been racial overtones in American college football.

How could there not be when you consider the dynamics in a sport where the vast majority of head coaches are white, most of the players are Black, the top coaches are paid millions and the players aren’t paid despite their labour bringing in tens of millions of dollars to athletic departments.

In some states, the highest-paid public employee is a university’s head football coach, their players virtually powerless to the whims of the men on the sidelines who hold such iconic positions.

In February of this year, the Associated Press reported that of 130 programs in FBS, the top tier of American college football, just 13 had Black head coaches – exactly 10 per cent. Among offensive and defensive coordinator positions, the stepping stones to head coaching roles, the numbers are similar. Just one program, Rice University, has both offensive and defensive coordinators who are Black.

The first Black head coach in Division I NCAA football wasn’t hired until 1979 and the Southeastern Conference, NCAA football’s most competitive conference with a high percentage of Black players, didn’t have one until 2004.

Coaches like Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, who played quarterback for the Cowboys during the 1980s, are as powerful and well-connected as they come, with all the swagger to prove it.

All of which makes what Canadian running back Chuba Hubbard did on Monday, deciding to speak out after he saw a photo of Gundy wearing a T-shirt adorned with the logo of the One America Network, a far-right leaning TV station where a host recently called Black Lives Matter a criminal organization, that much more remarkable and courageous.

It’s not illegal to watch OAN, to give it a positive review (as Gundy did back in April), or to wear a T-shirt with its logo displayed.

But if you’re in the business of leading a group of 18 to 22-year-olds, most of whom happen to be Black, it would suggest a certain level of arrogance, tone deafness and lack of accountability to your players.

All of that came crashing down on Wednesday when Hubbard, the Cowboys’ star running back, tweeted out the following:

A series of tweets supporting Hubbard followed from current and former OSU players, including from last season’s defensive MVP, linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, Hubbard’s roommate and a fellow Albertan.

Within hours, Hubbard posted a video of him and Gundy together, apologizing for the method he’d used to call out his coach but not for his message. Gundy acknowledged he’d failed to grasp the sensitivity of the issue, but stopped short of an apology until posting his own video on Tuesday afternoon. 

But any sense that Hubbard was backing down from his message was erased by his tweet that followed his apology.

Hubbard left no doubt this was about much more than the coach’s choice of wardrobe for a fishing trip. It was about the treatment of Black players at Oklahoma State under Gundy.

Seeing Gundy in that shirt, during a time of such heightened awareness about racism across society, appears to be simply the thing that drove Hubbard to take a stand.

By all appearances, Hubbard, for all he’s accomplished at Oklahoma State as the NCAA’s leading rusher last season, is a humble athlete, deferential to a fault, and almost stereotypically Canadian in his politeness.

He’s not a player who’s ever tried to draw attention to himself, which only serves to reinforce the seriousness of the problem he identified. Entering what is sure to be his final year of college football, Hubbard would qualify as someone with a lot more to lose than gain by calling out his head coach.

He appears to have been driven solely by the words he expressed in a post Tuesday morning.

"I am emotionally drained and tired of seeing stuff happening without results or consequences ... I am a young Black man that wants change. I want change that will bring a better experience for my Black brothers and sisters at Oklahoma State. It's that simple," he wrote.

The last few months have been full of unprecedented moments in all walks of life.

But when a kid from Sherwood Park, Alta., supported by his Calgarian roommate and teammate, can use his words to move his head coach to apologize and publicly promise “positive changes for Oklahoma State football,” we are living in truly unique times.

How big a moment this truly represents we won’t know for years. But in the present, it’s hard to overstate the significance of what’s taken place this week.

Hubbard had already earned his place in college football greatness by virtue of what he did on the field last season. A lot of people who’d never heard of him now know who he is by his decision to join the proud legacy of Black athletes who’ve demonstrated the strength of their character by putting what is fair and just before anything that happens in a game.