While OU’s 48-0 win over Missouri State on Sept. 12 went swimmingly for the Sooners, the evening went awry early in the student section at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
For as few student fans as were present for Oklahoma’s defeat of the Bears, there may have been even fewer masks.
Student ticket-holders berated ushers, refusing to don the masks mandated by athletic department policy to be worn in the stadium. Meanwhile, stickers on seats marking socially distanced spots were stripped and displaced. It quickly became obvious that many in the stands didn’t care about the rules.
But the Sooners — ranked No. 3 in the country, with a potential Heisman candidate at quarterback and national championship aspirations as a team — do.
“We’re held to a higher standard,” redshirt junior H-back Jeremiah Hall told the media Sept. 15 in light of Saturday's events. “We're expected to do the right things no matter whether it's in the classroom, on the field or in the facility. It's normal for us to be different than everyone else.”
Redshirt junior offensive lineman Creed Humphrey — who bypassed a likely first-round NFL draft selection to return to Norman for one more season — admitted he wasn’t surprised by the lack of responsibility some fans showed. He also acknowledged the situation is out of his control.
“We're at a college,” Humphrey said. “Kids are going to do what they want to do, so it's our job to just stay away from that and keep a distance from that. We can't try to control everybody in this university. That's just not possible.”
Instead, Humphrey and Hall maintained they can only continue to follow head coach Lincoln Riley’s lead.
Riley and the other Oklahoma coaches have enforced masking throughout preseason practices and into the 2020 season. OU hasn’t been perfect in its mitigation efforts, as 17 of 29 players absent from Saturday’s game were in quarantine. However, Riley and his staff still set the example for their athletes, upholding a requirement that isn’t just for their student-athletes — it’s for their families, too.
For that very reason, Riley’s players said they feel compelled to continue doing the right thing.
“It’s normal for us to follow the rules (and) follow the standard that is set by Coach Riley for us,” Hall said. “So if he tells us that we have to wear a mask, it's only right because we know that his kids are wearing a mask. I know that (tight ends and H-backs coach Shane Beamer's) kids are wearing a mask, so if they're asking their families to, then it's only right for us to. And for me personally, wearing a mask isn't that hard. We wear it everyday during practice, and it's not easy, but we do it regardless because we have something bigger that we want to accomplish.”
Riley said he remained locked in on the game Saturday, so he didn’t really notice the blatant disregard happening in the student section. Regardless, he didn’t shirk responsibility when discussing following masking protocols.
“We all have to sacrifice in this,” Riley said. “I mean, there's a lot of things that we have to sacrifice that a lot of other jobs don't require, and this happens to be one of those things, and so that's part of the deal. ... We're all having to make the same sacrifices, and we need each and every person regardless of what their role is in this program to step up and be truly all in with it.”
While no formal policy changes have been made by the OU athletics department, they’re likely on the way.
The Sooners have a bye this week, and will host Kansas State at 11 a.m. Sept. 26. After the home opener fiasco, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione told The OU Daily on Sunday he needs fans to do more to help keep one another healthy and safe.
"Unfortunately, we had too many fans fall short of expectations, and our message to those individuals is simple: We need you to do better,” Castiglione said in a statement to The Daily. “We recognize wearing a mask for an extended period of time may not be easy or comfortable. It’s not fun for us to enforce, either. However, right now it's a necessity. For the health and well-being of everyone involved, we're trying to set that standard."