University approved kneeling by student athletes while cracking down on conservative player

Lawsuit raises fresh questions about University of Oklahoma's involvement in political speech by student athletes.

Updated: August 15, 2021 - 12:01am

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Days before a University of Oklahoma volleyball team meeting where a coach allegedly pressured players to kneel during the national anthem, the university helped football players make a similar political gesture.

At the Sooners' Sept. 12 season opener against Missouri State, Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium "showed an announcement from OU players supporting racial justice" as the players locked arms on the sideline, according to Tulsa World.

Quarterback Spencer Rattler kneeled with some teammates on the field as the game opened, a politically progressive pose they would recreate in subsequent games.

To top it all off, the OU athletics department announced a social justice initiative dubbed "Sooners for Humanity" that included mandatory training. Players were also allowed to add "Black Lives Matter" patches to their uniforms.

Ex-Sooner Kylee McLaughlin's First Amendment lawsuit against OU and her former volleyball coaches raises fresh questions about the extent to which the taxpayer-funded institution is simply allowing its student athletes to express their beliefs, rather than picking and choosing what they can say.

Just the News asked OU for its response to allegations of bias in its approach to student political expression. "It is not the university's practice to comment on pending litigation," OU News responded in an uncredited statement.

"However, the university unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints. In fact, these are central elements of the university’s strategic plan and at the core of what makes a great university," the statement continued. "Individuals are encouraged to express their opinions and to engage in respectful dialogue with others who have differing perspectives."

The problems started for McLaughlin after the death of George Floyd, which also prompted football player Isaiah Thomas to tweet a photo of himself and other black teammates kneeling on the field. 

"If you can't support me in my streets [sic] clothes, don't support me in my uniform," Thomas wrote June 4, 2020. He was widely celebrated for the gesture.

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McLaughlin's lawsuit alleges that the COVID-19 pandemic flipped her coaches' priorities to "discussions about white privilege and social justice rather than coaching volleyball." They made the team watch the black incarceration documentary "13th" on June 11 and discuss it as a team and in small pods over Zoom.

The conservative Christian player faulted the film for a "left" slant and for comparing then-President Trump's remarks to the beating of blacks in the 1960s, but McLaughlin accepted its claims about marijuana and drugs driving black incarceration.

A teammate took a screenshot of McLaughlin's comments and tweeted it with the caption "things a racist person says," according to the lawsuit. Head coach Lindsey Gray-Walton allegedly told a distraught McLaughlin that the accusatory tweet would be "addressed" but took no action.

The coach showed no leeway, however, for McLaughlin's own tweet mocking the rival University of Texas for considering the removal of its purportedly racist fight song. Not only did her teammates call her out for her view, but Gray-Walton allegedly ordered McLaughlin to remove the tweet, citing OU social media guidelines against "posting negative things about teammates,” court documents say. (The coach has argued in court that McLaughlin's expressions threatened team cohesion.)

When McLaughlin refused to leave the team but agreed to redshirt the season and practice alone with Gray-Walton, another teammate falsely told another OU team that she had been kicked out of volleyball "for being racist." This teammate faced no repercussions from the coaches, the suit claims.

What happened after the Sept. 15 meeting with the coaches, players and campus diversity official — three days after the politically explicit football season opener — remains unclear. 

The lawsuit claims Gray-Walton "discussed the entire team kneeling for the National Anthem" and put resistant players on the spot for why they wanted to stand. "Numerous players" pushed back on the coach's pressure, the suit says.

Just the News asked McLaughlin's lawyer Richard Labarthe if any volleyball players kneeled on the court after this meeting, or if he could share the identities of those who pushed back.

He said "the family is not prepared at this time to do any interviews, although we are hopeful that they will be able to do so down the road."

The response from OU News didn't answer to a query about whether any volleyball players kneeled after the coach's alleged hard sell during the team meeting, or whether it investigated Gray-Walton's behavior. The coach didn't respond to a request for comment.