In the spirit of full disclosure, the color orange hasn’t always evoked warm feelings for me. I guess more than 30 years of passionately following a college program who dons cardinal and red can even turn an inanimate color into something of a rivalry. After all, if you are an Arkansas Razorbacks fan, the varying shades of orange of Texas, Auburn and Tennessee rarely position you on the side of that hue.
But following the weekend’s events in Stillwater, I can’t help but find myself drawn to that color, the orange and black of a school not so far away, a university, an athletics program and a family hurting from yet another incomprehensible tragedy.
Details continue to emerge from the devastating moments that transpired shortly after 10:30 a.m. local time at the Oklahoma State homecoming parade. Facts may come, but answers will remain woefully incomplete. Like many others around the nation, my thoughts, prayers and well wishes have been and continue to be with the Oklahoma State community at this extremely difficult time and the painful grieving moments to follow.
Even as the reality of what happened in Stillwater began to sink in, I found myself reflecting on the remarkable phenomenon of transformation that occurs within intercollegiate athletics when tragedy or even adversity strikes. Suddenly the often artificially manufactured dislike, disdain and even hatred for a rival team, disappears in a moment and is replaced by something extraordinary.
You saw it play out yet again over the weekend as the Cowboys’ fierce in-state on-field rival, the Oklahoma Sooners, was one of the first schools to respond. From football coach Bob Stoops to the Sooners’ student-athletes, rivalry stepped aside for compassion. Bedlam turned to benevolence.
That type of reaction is far from rare within intercollegiate athletics. In fact, it has become a narrative that at times goes unnoticed because of its regularity. There is something about the embracing culture of college sports, the men and women who compete and the fans that spend countless hours devoted to their teams.
The transformation pierces even the most contested of rivalries. How else could you explain busses boarding at Auburn to travel to Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, to assist those impacted by devastating tornadoes? Did you ever think you would see the men’s basketball coaches and student-athletes of North Carolina and Duke linked arm-in-arm before a game in a moment of silent reflection? It has happened on multiple occasions including after the murder of Eve Carson, the North Carolina student body president, and the passing of legendary coach Dean Smith.
For those tempted to look at things with a jaundiced eye, the argument might be made that only in times of death is that compassion displayed. But the truth is that sincere acts of kindness and care are extended each and every week, with many occurring outside the national spotlight.
Earlier this season, Southern University wide receiver Devon Gales suffered neck and spinal cord injuries in a non-conference game at the University of Georgia. He was removed from the field and treated by medical personnel from both teams. But the immediate response from the home team, was far from the care and concern extended to the young man facing a daunting road ahead. Georgia paid to fly in Gales’ parents to be by his side and Coach Mark Richt rallied Bulldogs’ fans to help defray medical expenses to come.
Sometimes it is just a word of encouragement or tweet of support. Only hours after the events in Stillwater, Arkansas freshman running back Rawleigh Williams III was carted off the field after suffering a neck injury during the Razorbacks’ game with Auburn. Williams underwent surgery later that night.
On Sunday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn reached out to Williams to check in on him. Coach Bret Bielema tweeted to thank Coach Malzahn and the Auburn program for its thoughtful concern. It was another small example of the connection forged between individuals within the college game, even hours following an emotionally draining four-overtime football game between the two schools.
Intercollegiate Athletics is not perfect. There are some serious issues to address to preserve its future and the continued opportunity for young men and women to earn an education while competing in their given sport. But often we are guilty of focusing on what isn’t right or what needs to be changed rather than what is right and the litany of many redeeming qualities.
Competition is healthy. You can’t have a rivalry without a team on the other side. But intercollegiate athletics can teach all of us a few things about how to respond in light of the real outcomes that matter.
I wouldn’t wish what happened in Stillwater on anyone, anywhere. I can’t imagine the anguish and the sorrow. But even in the darkest of days, a light has once again emerged from these inexplicable moments. It is a warm orange glow, one that will help illuminate the path forward and continue to spotlight the best of humanity and intercollegiate athletics.