Do you like a modern Western, where there’s cowboys and a showdown? If so, you should be paying attention to what’s going on at Oklahoma State, where football coach Mike Gundy threatened to cut off press access to players if reporters asked the wrong question.
Understanding what happened at Oklahoma State requires a basic understanding of the NCAA’s “redshirt rule” in team sports and recent changes to it. And while I realize this will be a review for many of you, it confused enough people in our conversations at FIRE that I think we need to cover it. (I promise, it’s painless. At least, it’s less painful than Star Trek’s redshirt rule.)
NCAA athletes get four years of athletic eligibility. Typically, those years coincide with the four years most full-time students are expected to spend in college, but they don’t have to. A team can choose to “redshirt” a student, which traditionally means they suit up and practice with the team for a year, but don’t actually play. Then, the athlete will play four seasons, with the fourth potentially coming the year after undergrad graduation.
For this season, the NCAA changed the redshirt rule: a student could play up to four games without burning his or her additional year of eligibility. On paper, it sounded great: It’s a chance for up-and-coming athletes to get a little play time in live games without costing an entire season.
As you might imagine, the flaw with this system showed up four games into the season.
At Clemson University, senior quarterback Kelly Bryant didn’t like losing his place as a starter after four games, so he’s redshirting to transfer elsewhere. Both Byrant and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have been relatively talkative about their reasons, with Swinney saying he had to reward the performance of Bryant’s replacement, while Bryant felt the move was a “slap in the face.”
Similarly, at Oklahoma State, senior receiver Jalen McCleskey decided to redshirt and take his final year elsewhere. Coach Mike Gundy said McCleskey felt he wasn’t getting the ball often enough.
This raised a number of questions for journalists to pose to McCleskey’s now-former teammates. For example: Was he getting the ball enough? Do you think Jalen put himself ahead of the team, or is he right to do what he thinks is best for himself? Do you think he’ll succeed elsewhere? What’s the mood like in the locker room? Should McCleskey be worried about being haunted by the ghost of your uncommonly vengeful mascot? Which of Coach Gundy’s life lessons do you think will help McCleskey most with his new team?
But before these issues could be explored, Gundy’s media relations coordinator showed up at the Tuesday practice shortly before players were expected to walk out. He informed reporters that if any reporter asked a player a question about McCleskey, then no players would be available to any media for the rest of the season.
In the moment, reporters acquiesced; they didn’t raise the questions. And then, according to the Daily O’Collegian:
The original decision that we all came to agreement on was that we would put a disclaimer in our story explaining the threat and why we didn’t ask players about McCleskey’s transfer.
Then we were notified there could be repercussions for reporting on Gundy’s threat.
We then contacted [the media relations coordinator], who urged media members to leave the threat out of the story to avoid possible consequences. However, if anyone asked why we didn’t ask players about McCleskey, we could choose to cite Gundy’s threat as our reasoning.
The story broke on Wednesday after OSU Assistant Professor Joey Senat posted about it:
An OSU SID, on behalf of coach Mike Gundy, threatened the press corps with the loss of player availability for the rest of the season if any one of them asked players Tuesday about a player's departure this week. @spj_tweets @APSE_sportmedia @rcfp @collegemedia @1stAmendmentCtr
— Joey Senat (@Joey_Senat) September 26, 2018
Was Gundy’s threat unconstitutional? Possibly, but a lot depends on the details. If Gundy had threatened to eject media from events if they asked a certain question, that could have been clearly unconstitutional, but the threat wasn’t directly to media access, it was a threat of player availability. In other words, media could attend the same events; there just wouldn’t be any players to interview. Still, that would be a decision motivated by a desire to control, punish, or influence content, making it a form of censorship.
But whether it’s unlawful or not, it isn’t a good idea. Trying to censor the media ends up with the media telling the story of how you tried to censor them and the story you tried to censor. But Gundy’s threat also reinforces to his players that he doesn’t respect their intelligence, maturity, or decision-making skills. However his players feel, they get to play out this season for a man who they know didn’t respect them enough to let them talk. I don’t know how his players feel about McCleskey, but I have a guess how they might feel about Gundy.
On the plus side, this incident does represent an improvement on Coach Gundy’s relationship with the media. I guess that makes this a happy ending?