By Kevin Trainor
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 that dons cardinal red can turn even an inanimate color into something of a rivalry. After all, if you are a fan of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, the varying shades of orange – representing the University of Texas at Austin, Auburn University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville – rarely position you on the side of that hue.
But after this past fall’s events in Stillwater, Oklahoma, 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.
Even as facts began to reveal the devastating moments that transpired shortly after 10:30 a.m. Oct. 24 at the Oklahoma State University homecoming parade – where a driver crashed her car through barricades and into the crowd, killing four and injuring dozens more – answers remained woefully incomplete. Like many others around the nation, my thoughts, prayers and well wishes continue to be with the Oklahoma State community.
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 adversity strikes. Suddenly, the often artificially manufactured dislike, disdain and even hatred for a rival team disappear in a moment and are replaced by something extraordinary.
We saw it play out yet again when the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ fierce in-state, on-field rival, the University of Oklahoma Sooners, responded with support on social media from football coach Bob Stoops and student-athletes. Later during the day of the tragedy, about 90 minutes south of Stillwater in Norman, Oklahoma, rivalry stepped aside for compassion and bedlam turned to benevolence as Oklahoma had a moment of silence for victims before its home game against Texas Tech University.
That type of reaction is far from rare within intercollegiate athletics. In fact, it has become a distinction 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 who spend countless hours devoted to their teams.
The transformation pierces even the most contested of rivalries. How else could you explain buses boarding at Auburn to travel to Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, to assist those affected by devastating tornadoes? Did you ever think you would see the men’s basketball coaches and student-athletes of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Duke University 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 after the death of legendary North Carolina men’s basketball 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.
This past fall, Southern University, Baton Rouge, wide receiver Devon Gales suffered neck and spinal cord injuries in a nonconference game at the University of Georgia. He was removed from the field and treated by medical personnel from both teams. But the response and care from the home team extended even further to a young man facing a daunting road ahead. Georgia paid to fly in Gales’ parents to be by his side, and then-Georgia 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.
The next day, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn called Williams to check on him. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema tweeted to thank Malzahn and the Auburn program for their thoughtful concern. It was another small example of the connection forged between individuals within the college game, even hours after an emotionally draining, four-overtime football game between the schools.
Intercollegiate athletics is not perfect. There are some serious issues to address to preserve its future, including continued opportunities 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 the litany of examples of what is right.
Competition is healthy. You can’t have a rivalry without a team on the other side. But college sports can teach all of us a few things about how to respond in light of the real outcomes that matter.
In Stillwater, 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.
Kevin Trainor is associate athletics director for public relations at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.