Race & Protest: The Cultural Significance of Football at Oklahoma

This week I’ve been Tweeting and sharing stories and links about the events at the University of Oklahoma. The video showing racist behavior by Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity members is disturbing. I’ve tried to add some context by sharing my research into the history of Oklahoma and the university. During these discussions, I’ve payed particularly close attention to OU Football Coach Bob Stoops. He’s done a tremendous job of coming out against the actions and taking a firm stand against racism. President Boren has also done an admirable job providing quick, decisive leadership. The fraternity has already been shut down. Two of its member have also been expelled for their behavior.

Today news came out that Coach Bob Stoops, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione, and the University of Oklahoma football did not practice yesterday (which was supposed to be their first spring practice). Instead, they met at the football complex, prayed together, and then marched through campus arm-in-arm demonstrating against racism. The Oklahoma Football Twitter account Tweeted pictures using #notonOUrcampus and #Sooners Stand United.

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Also on Monday, top-recruit Jean Delance announced he would not attend OU and decommitted. These actions illustrate the importance of football as a symbol of the university. I’ve focused predominately on the actions of the football team at OU because it’s my area of research. My dissertation explores the OU football dynasty during the 1950s, and how it came to represent the state and create pride for its citizens. Football became a symbol of not just the university, but also the state. Bud Wilkinson, the football coach during that era, became one of the most important people in the state (this later led him to run for political office). The central role of football in the state is significant, and thus the leadership of its coach is crucial for gaining the attention of Sooners. After all, as my study shows, football played a key role in shaping the state’s culture. I believe Stoops and the OU football team continue to do so today.

Race and football has a long history together. The University of Oklahoma was the second to last football program to integrate its team in the old Big 8 (Missouri was the last). Though they were 14 years ahead of their biggest rival, the University of Texas, who integrated in 1970, it was a slow process. OU faced two Supreme Court cases during the late-1940s that would eventually force integration of the university. It took nearly four years from the first lawsuit until African-Americans were finally admitted. Once admitted, the University dragged its feet. Using railings and ropes, it tried to keep black students separate in classrooms. University President George Cross received hundreds of letters. Many of them from local residents deploring the idea, while out-of-state writers shamed Oklahoma for treating African-American students like animals, caging them off with ropes and railings. Soon, there were similar concerns about the integration of the student union and the football stadium. Could black students attend games? Would the intensity of sports cause problems? Administrators debated the pros and cons. Though George McLaurin and Ada Lois Sipuel sought educational equality, not athletic integration, they clearly got the ball rolling.

Indeed, in 1950 coach Bud Wilkinson announced that he would welcome any black player who was willing to try out for the team. A few tried out, but no one made the team until 1956. Prentice Gautt, a fullback from Oklahoma City became the first black player on the University of Oklahoma football team. He was a standout athlete at all-black Douglas High School. During his high school career, Gautt played in the first-ever integrated game in the state of Oklahoma. He was also the first African-American to play in the state all-star game, though he was a late addition and it required special permission.

Gautt’s success at OU was due, in part, to the support he received from the African-American community in Oklahoma City. According to Sooner Magazine, “A group of black doctors and pharmacists in Oklahoma City had funded a four-year scholarship for a scholar-athlete who could make the grade at OU.” This would save Wilkinson, and presumably other OU coaches, from having to use an athletic scholarship on a black player, which undoubtedly would have created a quite a controversy among fans and boosters. Because of Gautt’s athletic prowess, he easily could have chosen to attend another school who had offered him a real scholarship (a year later Gautt was given an athletic scholarship), but OU’s football clout meant more to him. They were the best team not just in Oklahoma, but the entire country. Playing at OU allowed him to fulfill one of his childhood dreams.

The Sooners were in the middle of a 47-consecutive game winning streak when Gautt joined the team. The 1956 team was named national champions for the second year in a row, but because of eligibility rules Gautt was relegated to the freshman team. Oddly, I’ve found relatively little coverage of Gautt and the integration of football at OU in the mainstream white press. Because of the earlier Supreme Court cases, the papers seemed to believe that Oklahoma was progressive and had moved beyond race. This, of course, was not true. The newspapers do reveal some of the difficulties Gautt faced. A few of his fellow freshman refused to play along side an African-American. Because of this, one of these teammates decided to leave OU. Most, however, supported him. When the freshman team was denied integrated dining following a game in Tulsa, they chose to walk out in solidarity.

According to Sooner Magazine, Gautt was sure to go out of his way to appease Southern customs, such as avoiding being seen with a female classmates. “When class was over, she would go back to the Quad, and I’d go the same way to practice,” he told the magazine. “I can remember slowly putting up my brushes one at a time, washing them and washing them and thinking `Holy cow, we have to do all of this…” Indeed, he struggled to have much of a social life in Norman and instead often drove to back home to Oklahoma City.

He earned a spot on the varsity team his sophomore year (just as the winning-streak ended). On the varsity team he continued to face racism. In Texas, state laws prohibited housing Gautt with the team in their Worth Hotel in Fort Worth before the big OU-Texas game at the Cotton Bowl, so other arrangements had to be made. Like earlier, the team showed solidarity and changed venues with him. Despite these set backs, Gautt stuck with it. During his junior year, he finally came into his own on the field. He was named MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. Success helped Gautt become more accepted on campus and in Oklahoma.

Following his playing day at OU, Gautt was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He stayed in Cleveland for a year before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. After seven years with the Cardinals, Gautt retired and became an assistant for Dan Devine at Missouri in 1968. While coaching, he earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology focusing on minority athletes. Eventually he joined the Big 8 (and later Big 12) as an assistant commissioner.

Gautt’s experience at Oklahoma shaped his later career and how he viewed race and athletics. In a TV interview during Bud Wilkinson’s 1964 U.S. Senate campaign, Gautt outlined some of his experience at OU and his views on Civil Rights and racial issues in sport.

Well you know this problem of integration, the Civil Rights bill, the Public Accommodations bill, they are, to me, when I hear people talk about it, it’s a big farce. Because it is easy for a person to get up and say I’m for civil rights, I’m for equal opportunity and I’m for this and I’m for that. But I believe until you make the first move in acting, or acting out what you’re saying, it’s no good.

Gautt believed in action, and he thought words were meaningless unless the were backed up. Bud Wilkinson backed up his word and Gautt supported him for Senate because “I have experienced it [Wilkinson’s actions].” During the interview, Gautt explained one example where Wilkinson stood up for Gautt and cut through racist views on the football team.

In 1959, uh we had a problem. We had, I was up for all-American, we had several fellas on the team that resented this. They didn’t think that I should have been up. They began to talk about me behind my back. We played Northwestern, we lost a very crucial game, our first game of the season. We came back we beat a team just barely, then we went to Texas, we played, we lost the game. We came back for practice that Tuesday. Tuesday we had a lousy practice. And he called us up in a huddle, and he said everybody in. We were really amazed because practice wasn’t over. He came into the dressing room we were in there milling around, talking with each other, and everybody sat down as he came in, and he said I want to talk to you for a moment. He said the fellow you’ve been talking about, he didn’t do, he didn’t ask for this all-American publicity. He didn’t ask for anything, the sportswriters selected him. He had the publicity from the paper. And I think it’s unjust that you talk about him behind his back. And until all of you decide that you want to play ball, you want to play together, that you’re men enough, and then stand up and tell him the things that you’ve said about him behind his back, I don’t want to have anything to do with you. And he walked out and slammed the door. Well, immediately fellas began to stand up and apologize to me for what they’d said. We band together, got together and we played wonderful football, at least up until the Nebraska game, which we lost. I think that was one of the first time Oklahoma had lost to the Big 8, one of the Big 8 foes, in pretty good a while.

(The quotes above are from this video interview).

Wilkinson was able to provide this leadership because, according to Gautt, he was “a secure person who felt pretty good about who and what he was.” He had the respect and the authority because of his success and his position within the state to say “You can he a part of my program. Regardless of what other people think or feel or do, I want you to be a part of my program.” This, in turn, put Gautt at ease and allowed him to trust his coach.

The response at OU follows this tradition. President Boren’s strong words have been followed by swift action and expulsions. Coach Stoops, like Wilkinson, has displayed remarkable leadership as well. Monday’s protest demonstrates to Oklahoma football players, and fans of the program, that its leader will not tolerate racism.

Gautt’s words, his example, and his determination still loom larger for the Sooners. The Prentice Gautt Academic Center connected to Memorial Stadium supports Oklahoma athletes academically. Likewise, until his death in 2005, Gautt frequently returned to OU to offer his wisdom. In 1987 he told Sooner Magazine, “Regardless of how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go in terms of people relating to people. We’re not talking about just black to white and white to black: we’re talking about people relating, families, husbands and wives, kids and other kids. Underlying that is a message of love–what it really means to care for somebody.” As Oklahoma moves forward, I hope these words from one of the school’s most important racial pioneers guide it. It’s heartening to see Stoops and the football team lead the way. Like Wilkinson and Gautt breaking barriers in the 1950s, the cultural importance of football remains important and will go a long way in starting the healing process.

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