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OU football: Lincoln Riley discusses importance of mental health, Black Lives Matter support for players

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Coach Lincoln Riley looks onto the field during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Dec. 28, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley addressed a range of topics that involve the need for connecting on a more intimate level with players while they're all separated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Riley, heading into his fourth season at the helm of the Sooners, held a Zoom media availability Wednesday afternoon, discussing topics ranging from the Black Lives Matter protests to the mental health aspect of his players while the team is limited to only virtual connection.

Here's what Riley had to say:

Standing with his players

For the past week, as the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement gains more and more momentum, sports figures all over the country have voiced their support. Riley along with his staff and players have taken to social media and public protests to show support.

“I'll definitely stand with my players. And it's not just because they're my players. It's a fundamental belief. I was very fortunate I was raised in a household that taught me that no one is better than anyone else because of the color of their skin. I’ve been lucky enough to be in locker rooms and to support teams all my life.”

Riley continued his sentiments when asked about the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on social media and why he uses it. From the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity racist chant in 2015 to the 2019 viral blackface video with a racial slur from an OU student, players and coaches experienced a need for protest long before this year's events.

“It’s a personal belief of mine, you’ve seen it said a lot of places. All lives do matter, but the incidents here, of all the different things that have gone on between law enforcement and specifically black males, has highlighted that. And it’s highlighted that — other people said it very well, maybe better than I could say it — that all lives can’t matter until the black lives do too and on an equal playing field.

"... I’ve seen how awesome it can be when everybody takes an approach of, ‘We’re all on the same playing field, we’re all equal,’ and how beautiful that is."

On sustaining mental health of players in quarantine

In a sport where the physical health of players is often more noticed than mental health, Riley said the program is working on the latter subject more thoroughly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has separated the entire team.

With the stress of racial injustice in the nation on his players, Riley said the mental health aspect of their lives is being more focused on.

“(It’s) extremely difficult. You got players that are totally out of their comfort zones right now that have been gone so long, missing all the things that they’re used to doing and want to do. And obviously with the two different things going on in our country right now and in the world, it’s a huge deal. 

“We’re taking some of that time where we could be doing some football related activities and we’re directing that more towards (mental health), just because it’s important to us because: one, it’s a huge factor; and two, the health and well-being of our players, we would never put anything in front of that. I think we’ve taken some positive steps. But certainly as these guys get back on campus it’s something we’re really going to be watching out for. (I’m) thankful we’ve got a team and coaches that I think gets that and understands that.”

On having players, staff self-quarantine prior to returning to campus on July 1

With OU's facilities opening up July 1 for voluntary workouts, the program has a plan for a safer — and slower — return to maximize player and staff safety starting in mid-June. The plan involves quarantine procedures at home before returning.

"Quarantine for us will happen starting in mid-June. I don't want to get too much in the weeds with this but the general thought is — depending on where a player’s at, where they’re coming from — there's a plan in place, a set of guidelines as we go through as far as where they can quarantine.

"A lot of our players will be able to quarantine, if they’re at their homes, the majority of our players will be able to quarantine there. And then we've got some safe ways of being able to bring them back and preserve the integrity of that quarantine through any travel back here. It's a pretty intensive process but I think it's necessary. The goal is to get every single player and staff member here on campus and start off with everybody not having the virus and then, obviously, the next step is doing your best to keep it that way." 

On working with OU Athletic Director Joe Castiglione and President Joe Harroz

"We've had some direct contact with both (Joe Castiglione and President Joe Harroz) about the virus, our stance on when to bring our players back, our stance on testing and when to bring staff back. We’re starting to talk about what a season looks like and set our priorities as we work through all these different scenarios that can play out. Communication with them was great, you know it's been awesome to see that even though this group has not worked together for a long time yet, we were very much in sync on really every step of how we wanted to handle this virus.

"That was exciting to see, that both (Castiglione and Harroz) and myself were already on the same page and had similar feelings about this so I was excited about some of them. A lot of people have a lot of different opinions on this, so I thought that was a great thing. And that was a big part of the reason we were able to make up our minds and be very decisive about how we were going to handle this initial part of getting our players back on campus."

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Caleb McCourry is the assistant sports editor at The Daily and is a junior at OU majoring in English. He's covered football, basketball and volleyball. 

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