Senior Oklahoma State wide receiver Jalen McCleskey announced his decision to transfer on Monday. That was apparently a piece of news the Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy wanted as few people talking about as possible. Let’s just say that plan might have backfired.
According to multiple reports, Gundy threatened to end all player availability for the media for the rest of the season if a single reporter asked a player about McCleskey’s transfer on Tuesday, sending the message through media relations coordinator Gavin Lang.
This attempt to intimidate the press was first reported by Oklahoma State professor Joey Senat and later confirmed by columns from the Tulsa World and The O’Colly, Oklahoma State’s independent student paper. Per The O’Colly, the program later doubled down on the threat by warning that even reporting its existence could also carry repercussions.
An OSU SID, on behalf of coach Mike Gundy, threatened the press corps with the loss of player availability for the rest of the season if any one of them asked players Tuesday about a player's departure this week. @spj_tweets @APSE_sportmedia @rcfp @collegemedia @1stAmendmentCtr
— Joey Senat (@Joey_Senat) September 26, 2018
It was a clumsy, naked attempt to assert control over an independent press, and one that no competent professional could have possibly thought would stay in the shadows in the long run.
How Oklahoma State’s press threat played out
In The O’Colly’s side of the story, it claims Lang delivered Gundy’s threat only minutes before players would be available for interviews on Tuesday. That development left reporters scrambling, trying to figure out what to do.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, media members gathered in the west concourse of the stadium for weekly player availability after practice. Players are usually made available at about 5:30 p.m., but before the first player reached the waiting reporters, the ethical dilemma began.
Gavin Lang, Gundy’s media relations coordinator, gathered the group of reporters and said Gundy threatened that if any reporter asks a player a question about McCleskey, then players would no longer be available to any media for the rest of the season.
Reporters immediately took to the phones, calling editors and supervisors about what to do.
The media collectively opted to honor Gundy’s request, a decision likely rooted in a desire to preserve an important part of beat coverage for a seemingly small price and to not be the one reporter that loses player availability for the entire press corps. It might be a slippery slope when a program is allowed to dictate its own coverage, but it was an understandable decision in a surreal situation.
Later, beat reporters from four different outlets reportedly decided on a fair course of action, only to receive another threat from Lang.
The original decision that we all came to agreement on was that we would put a disclaimer in our story explaining the threat and why we didn’t ask players about McCleskey’s transfer.
Then we were notified there could be repercussions for reporting on Gundy’s threat.
We then contacted Lang, who urged media members to leave the threat out of the story to avoid possible consequences. However, if anyone asked why we didn’t ask players about McCleskey, we could choose to cite Gundy’s threat as our reasoning.
Now, a day later, the situation has predictably escalated, but Oklahoma City NBC affiliate KFOR has reportedly been told that the media will face no repercussions.
— KFORsports (@KFORsports) September 27, 2018
What on earth was Mike Gundy thinking?
In the short term, Mike Gundy managed to avoid any reporters asking his players about a transfer. That might have taken some color out of the articles covering the transfer and maybe avoided a leak of a possibly embarrassing situation. Sure.
In the long term, Mike Gundy managed to shine a national spotlight on that transfer, potentially alienate the entire Oklahoma State press corps and give us yet another chapter in the storybook of college football programs locking down communications with the press as though the team’s wide receiver depth chart is akin to a state secret.
That doesn’t seem like a worthwhile tradeoff.
Maybe there’s something Gundy is trying to hide in the midst of McCleskey’s transfer, maybe he’s just trying to protect the senior in an unfortunate position, but what makes this situation so ridiculous is it was so avoidable.
As the Tulsa World’s column suggests, all Gundy had to do was say the following to his players in order to get the same short-term result with none of the long-term repercussions:
“You’re going to get asked about him. I request you talk about the players who are still with us. Give a ‘no comment’ and move on.”
That was it. Three sentences, and Gundy gets nearly zero chance of an embarrassing quote about McCleskey’s transfer while risking little blowback. Instead, the highest-paid public employee in the state of Oklahoma decided he needed to assert his power and created an embarrassing spectacle for the university in the process.
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