A month ago, this story presumably would have been about the football game played on Saturday, Aug. 29, between OU and Missouri State.

The score was likely to be lopsided in favor of OU. The crowd would have been scarce due to the ongoing pandemic, and not much would be learned from an uneven contest between a perennial College Football Playoff contender and a program in a division beneath it.

The Sooners still managed to teach us a few things this weekend even without a game that's been rescheduled for Sept. 12.

OU’s players and coaches forewent practice on Friday and marched from their locker room to the Unity Garden on the university’s campus after an emotional team meeting Thursday.

Through the demonstration — which followed ones just like it after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin — the first lesson became clear. Lincoln Riley is a man of his word.

“I want the guys to have the freedom to express themselves,” Riley said. “That’s part of living in this country. But we really try to educate them to do it … well thought out, smart, educated, peaceful, positive.”

That quote is from July 3. And he backed it up less than two months later, locking arms with his players during Friday’s unity march.

It’s taken willingness and understanding from OU’s coaches to allow players to freely make their voices heard within the program’s walls. And the results of those conversations have helped Riley shape his perspective.

“I’ve been very surprised about some of the things I’ve heard,” Riley said of the discussion he’s had with players in regards to race. “I grew up a white male. I have not lived or had to experience some of the things that a lot of my players have had to. As much as you want to read about it, this or that, it’s different when it hits home and when it’s somebody that you care about. 

“That has absolutely been a learning experience for me. Every step of it. It's definitely made me more aware and I hope will equip me and our staff, and not just for our players, our staff members, too. But I hope it will equip us to continue doing a better job of leading them.”

So, if it wasn’t clear before, focusing only on football hasn’t been an option this offseason.

How could it be in these times?

“These guys, in a sense, feel like they’ve been piled on from the pandemic to all that’s going on in the country,” Riley said.

OU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was recently asked about the team’s morale. He responded, “Are there some tough days? Certainly, there are for these guys as you can imagine. They see and hear anything that is national news.”

OU has created a task force, which includes the likes of safety Patrick Fields, linebacker Caleb Kelly and defensive back Chanse Sylvie, in response to these events. The group meets with the rest of the team regularly to discuss their initiatives for racial justice.

Riley said the program has also met with local law enforcement as part of their efforts toward unity — unity being another lesson OU wanted to drive home Friday.

Plenty of thought went into the details of the team’s march between the location, their clothing and their words.

Riley made it clear as he fielded questions after the demonstration that his team doesn’t have all the answers to the country’s problems. He just hopes it sent a message.

"We've got a lot more questions than answers, but we are united," Riley said. "And we do believe that unity is a huge step in this and hopefully people will take from it what they wanna take, but hopefully they see that we're together and we're together from just about every different type of background that you can imagine."

Keep up with the Sooners on social media by following OU Gameday by Norman Transcript on Facebook and @transcript on Twitter. 

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