It is shockingly easy to miss monumental things when they are happening in real time. That is the danger before us when we watch Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard hop on Twitter and tell the world that he’s done with his college football program after his head coach was photographed wearing a One America News (OAN) Network T-shirt.
In a time of renewed outrage over the NFL’s late and insufficient response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Hubbard’s objection could be easily dropped into a growing bucket of outcries from athletes as they demand that league ownership and officials become louder advocates for the Black community that overwhelmingly provides their athletes. But what is happening among college athletes is a discovery of voice that overshadows that of any professional.
As a group, college football players do not have the power that professional players do. There is no union to sit with commissioners and fight for a share of a conference’s revenue. There is no brand sponsorship available that provides them with an alternative platform or revenue stream. There is no money at all. That money and that power waits for them in the NFL, sat high upon a hill and glowing with heavenly light. To get to the NFL, there is only one small and treacherous path up the mountain, and that narrow way is maintained by the gatekeepers.
College coaches are gatekeepers; so are pro scouts and NFL team owners and the NFL Combine Player Selection Committee and the College Advisory Committee. A tacit agreement is struck between the gatekeepers, and that agreement exists to keep the way as narrow and the slope as steep as possible. This is how Nick Saban was able to tell his team that only Tua Tagovailoa got a top-15 grade from the College Advisory Committee. Eventually, four Alabama players got drafted in the top 15. This is how Tyreek Hill, once of Hubbard’s Oklahoma State, was drafted in the sixth round despite his guilty plea of domestic assault and battery in 2014, when he strangled and punched his pregnant girlfriend. Among all of the prospects with domestic assault charges, Hill and his 4.29s 40-yard dash made it through the gates.
To potential pro athletes, these gatekeepers advertise themselves as ferrymen, who will do what they can to facilitate their journey to the league. Highly ranked recruits funnel into the top college teams, believing the promise that they are more likely to make it to the league if they attend a school known for producing NFL players. Along the way, the college coaches profit off of the labors of their players.
It is the players who pay the fare of their time and talent, the players who risk their health on the field, and the players who row the boat of the program itself, propelling coaches to better jobs and fatter contracts, athletic departments to bigger budgets and gaudy facilities, all to attract the next recruit in the cycle. And the promise of NFL attention, when finally and eventually born true, is actually not a product of the program or the coach. It is of the player, his talent, and his efforts.
The call that Hubbard made is a call for a new promise. College coaches have promised ascension to the NFL for young Black men; now they must promise social ascension as well. Hubbard asked for change from Oklahoma State—a change in their and Gundy’s treatment of the social issues that matter to him and to fellow Black athletes. In doing so, he put in jeopardy the enduring stability of that narrow way, that ascension to the NFL. Colleges tell recruits they need the school to get to the league, and they do, but now a player is telling a program that something is more important to him than access to the league.
This is the only card in Hubbard’s hand, but it is the trump card. Billions of dollars cycle through the gatekeepers’ hands as they maintain the narrow way to the league, but it is the players who spin the gears of that economy. All of the power available to Hubbard in his eventual fame and eventual wealth and eventual platform is condensed into the carrot that is the NFL; access to which Oklahoma State dangles in front of him. By denying it, Hubbard is able to grasp that power in the future and yank it into the present.
This is staggeringly brave. College athletes’ voices and power are filtered, managed, and maintained by their programs. They tweet once a month with approval from the school as they kowtow to the rules written by the gatekeepers: that, to make it into the NFL, they must never speak out against their coaches or force the organization to act a certain way. When Marvin Wilson told Florida State that he and his teammates weren’t practicing after head coach Mike Norvell overstated his work with the team following the death of George Floyd, he put millions of dollars on the line; and Hubbard did the same when he challenged Oklahoma State and Gundy. Sure, they would still be drafted on their talent, but they’d be drafted later and only by certain teams with anonymous doubts voiced by NFL gatekeepers would loom over their heads for the duration of their careers.
Hubbard and Wilson are protected by their talent—the same talent that makes them great players at competitive programs. But so was Norvell, who issued an apology and is now back to his daily business, and so is Gundy, who didn’t issue an apology at all.
Gundy “realized it’s a very sensitive issue” and is looking forward to making the Oklahoma State organization and culture “even better than it is”—which is to say, Gundy believes the culture at Oklahoma State is good, and the current climate of Black awareness could threaten it. The change that he promises has no form, no identity, no accompanying plan.
After he says his piece and rights his wrong, he turns to Hubbard, whose turn it is now to right his wrong. This was a misunderstanding, a miscommunication—Gundy wore a shirt he shouldn’t have; Hubbard sent a tweet he shouldn’t have. They both erred equally. They’ll both do better in the future.
The fabricated conflict and equality here is a lie, gleefully plain before us. Hubbard challenged a righteous hierarchy between gatekeeper and traveler, the meek NFL hopeful and the guardian of the exalted league. In doing so, he demanded a response from Gundy, and Gundy performed as he was demanded, just to put Hubbard back on the path. To Gundy, to college football, and to the NFL, Hubbard is the wrongdoer that spoke truth to power. This makes him unpredictable and dangerous.
But Hubbard’s power will not soon be forgotten, nor were his demands fulfilled. “Change is coming” is the promise from Hubbard, and must become the promise of all college coaches who intend on profiting off of the efforts of young Black men looking to raise up their communities and fight for social justice. Hubbard and college players don’t get a union and they don’t get a contract and they don’t even get rights to their names and images (yet), but they do get a voice on social media. When wielded correctly, it draws our eyes to the inequity of the narrow way that we can so effortlessly ignore in our love for the game and its talented players. Their expectation is that we do not easily turn away again once our worldview settles and perspective reverts back to our shielded experience, and that their coaches acknowledge that the path is narrow and the slope is steep, to eventually widen the way and amplify the voices of the powerful Black men that make their offenses score and defenses stymie.
Nothing changed at Oklahoma State yet. The fear is that nothing will, as 51 seconds of Gundy’s stammering acknowledgment and Hubbard’s folded arms will bury the issue down far enough that Oklahoma State’s disillusioned players will not be able to reach it until Gundy missteps again. The hope is that something will change, and though it may be incremental and perhaps unnoticeable, it will prove that college players have a say in their treatment—in the realization of the story they’re sold and the exchange they receive for their talent and effort.
This is the power of the college player, and it is not enough. But it is being leveraged, with boldness like never before. As it grows and becomes more familiar, it will be leveraged in even bolder ways, and greater change will come.