Oklahoma becomes home to more Catholics, and maybe a saint

By Josie Logsdon

While parishes across Oklahoma are opening their doors to more Catholics every year, the percentage of Catholics nationwide is declining. Amid this growth, the Oklahoma native Blessed Stanley Rother, is in the process of becoming a saint. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. fell from 24% in 2007 to 21% in 2014. While the Catholic population in Oklahoma stayed around a steady 4.6% throughout the 20th century, as of 2013, the percentage of Catholics in the state almost doubled to 8%.

The majority of the growth has been from Hispanics, said Diane Clay, director of communications at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma, as well as an increase of immigrants from Burma and Vietnam in the state. Conversion also accounts for the growth. 

“In other areas of the country – particularly the Northeast – they are closing churches; we’re building churches,” Clay said. The archdiocese broke ground on the 2,000 seat shrine for Blessed Stanley Rother in Oklahoma City last month. 

“It’s a wonderful challenge to have,” Clay continued, “and a blessing to have such diversity in the church in Oklahoma.” 

History of Catholicism in Oklahoma

The Catholic presence can be traced to the Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma, some 300 years ago. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma wrote that the French Benedictine monks established an official and permanent Catholic presence here in 1875.

At the time, the area was considered “inhospitable” and “unfertile ground for the Catholic Church,” according to the archdiocesan website. No Catholic clergy wanted the responsibility of the frontier land.

Isidore Robot founded the first Catholic Church in the Indian Territory in Atoka in the 1870s. He continued to establish churches along the railroads throughout the territory.

By the early 1900s, there were about 5,000 Catholics in the Indian Territory – one for every 14 square miles. In this era, many Catholics lapsed from the church due to mistreatment and ridicule. Nonetheless, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma was established in 1905, two years before statehood, with the creation of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City.

After the Great Depression, the Church grew in Oklahoma. During the time Bishop Eugene McGuinness was in office, 40% more parishes erected and 33% more priests were ordained; only three counties in the state did not have a Catholic church.

The Catholic population remained steady until the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which renewed the church across the state.

The diocese split in 1973, creating a separate diocese for Tulsa. Archbishop John R. Quinn of Oklahoma City started a movement of Catholic outreach for Spanish speakers and the youth of the state. The following bishop, Charles Salatka, furthered outreach for immigrants. He devoted himself at 68 to learn Spanish and celebrate the Spanish Mass.   

The Hispanic population continued to grow in the state, a group that is culturally very Catholic. Parishes adapted quickly to the needs of the Spanish-speaking Catholic community.

“About 25-30 years ago, the presence of Hispanic people [in Oklahoma] became more noticeable,” said Deacon Angelo Lombardo of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Norman.

In 1994, St. Joseph’s became the first church in Cleveland County to celebrate the Mass in Spanish. About 60 attended the first Spanish Mass. Today, there are over 700 Hispanic parishioners who attend Mass every weekend at the parish, said Lombardo.

Not only is the Catholic population growing because of the increase in Hispanics in the state, but the Catholic community is becoming younger. Lombardo said the Spanish-speaking families led to an influx of youth and vitality in his parish. Other parishes have seen the same effect. 

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Oklahoma City has had to move into the church gym during Mass for overflow space, despite celebrating nine Masses every weekend, Clay said. All but one of the Masses are in Spanish. Most churches only celebrate about four a weekend. 

“The shrine’s location will help alleviate the overcrowding,” Clay said. 

A saint for the state

Amid the growing Catholic population in the state, the first Oklahoma-born candidate for sainthood is going through the process for canonization. 

“Archbishop Emeritus Beltran asked me to come in his office one day,” Deacon Norm L. Mejstrik said. He thought he was in trouble. 

“He asked if I would be the coordinator for the Cause for Beatification of Father Stanley Rother.” Mejstrik took the role in 2007. 

The first thing he had to do was write a biography about Rother, send it to Rome, and have it accepted. Mejstrik’s team compiled everything written by and about Rother – interviews with witnesses, letters, documents – and created a book over 7,000 pages. They sealed it in a box with a wax seal and shipped it to the Vatican. 

Blessed Stanley Rother, born in 1935 in Okarche, OK, was a priest for five years in the state. He received permission to join a diocesan mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in the late ‘60s.

Rother served the native tribe of the Tz’utujil. He devoted himself to learning Spanish as well as the indigenous language of the tribe so he could celebrate the Mass in their tongue.

Rother lived in extreme poverty in the midst of the Guatemalan civil war. When he became a target, he and his associates returned to Oklahoma.

But “the shepherd cannot run,” he said. He quickly returned to his community in Guatemala. On July 28, 1981, Rother was killed in his own rectory.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints reviewed Rother’s 7,000-page biography and passed it onto the pope, who declared Rother a martyr in 2015. 

The next year, Rother became the first beatified U.S. born priest and martyr. The ceremony, held at Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, was the second beatification ceremony on U.S. soil. 

Today, the Cause for Canonization continues for Rother. In order to become a saint, he must be attributed with a miracle.

Miracles are almost always medical because they are the easiest to verify, said Mejstrik, who is one of the first to examine an alleged miracle. 

They investigate what happened, what the diagnosis was, what the prognosis was, what therapy was provided and the end result. Was there a medical explanation?

“If there is, that’s good,” Mejstrik said, “it means the person lived because of the wonders of modern medicine.”

“If not – it could be a miracle,” he continued. Then they document the process – timelines, testimonies and medical records – and send it to the archdiocesan tribunal. From there, the documentation is sent to Rome, then to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, then the medical board. 

“If the medical board has any doubt there is a miracle,” Mejstrik said, “then it isn’t.” Once it passes the board, the pope gives a final review. 

Mejstrik has received dozens of calls of “favors”, or potential miracles, since the Cause opened. 

“There are a few that are pretty interesting,” he said. They are in various stages of information gathering. Some medical records have already been released to the Cause. 

“We actually got medical records last Saturday from a physician who said he was ready to release them to us,” Mejstrik recalled, “and we have the authorization of the person who was granted the favor, so we can continue.”

Mejstrik said being the director of the Cause for Canonization has been humbling.

“Who am I to be called to work on the Cause of a saint?” he asked. “To study about his life, to promote his cause – it makes me feel very blessed.” 

He also sees how Rother’s life has inspired others in the community. The same people who designed the Oklahoma Memorial Museum are taking on the project of creating the museum that will be at Rother’s shrine. 

“They are a really well-known organization and don’t take on every opportunity that comes along to tell a story,” Mejstrik said. “But when they heard his story, it was so compelling they couldn’t not tell it.” 

“Oklahoma doesn’t have anything like this,” Clay said about the shrine. “It will be something beautiful for the entire community.” 

Nestled between I-35 and Shields on S 89th Street, the 56-acre shrine will become a landmark in Oklahoma City. Both Clay and Mejstrik hope everyone – Catholics, non-Catholics and visitors – will come to learn about the life of Blessed Stanley Rother. 

“We’re all called to be saints,” Mejstrik conveyed. “Blessed Stanley Rother gives us an idea of what that means.”

Ruling from Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals could affect OU Bias Response Committee

By Matt Welsh

A decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Michigan Bias Response Team would produce an “objective chill” and quell on-campus speech, violating the First Amendment. The ruling could have implications for the OU Bias Response Committee, which has similarities to Michigan’s now-defunct Bias Response Team.

The September 2019 decision came from a lawsuit brought by Speech First, a free speech advocacy organization, against Mark Schlissel, in his capacity as the University of Michigan president, challenging the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team. According to the suit, Michigan’s response team acted as an “informal resource to support students who feel they have experienced bias in the University community, to refer them to other campus resources as appropriate, and to educate the University community with respect to issues related to bias.”

The Michigan Response Team did not have formal power to punish bias incidents. However, the suit claimed, the response team could refer potential bias incidents to police. Additionally, the response team invited those involved in bias incidents to speak with the team. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion said the power of referral and the implicit consequences of refusing a voluntary appearance when invited produced an “objective chill” over speech.

The case was settled after it was remanded to the district court, according to MLive. The appeal to the Sixth Circuit came after District Court Judge Linda V. Parker initially denied Speech First’s request for a preliminary injunction, which would have stopped the University of Michigan’s use of the Bias Response Team. In the denial of the preliminary injunction, Judge Parker wrote the chilling of speech was subjective and agreed with the University of Michigan that the response team was not a disciplinary body.

“The trial judge didn’t think that Speech First had any standing in this. It’s a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit and two of them disagreed with the trial judge,” said Joey Senat, associate professor at Oklahoma State University’s School of Media and Strategic Communications.

“In other words, they agreed with Speech First and said, ‘We think it does have standing’… It had to do with whether (Speech First’s) members could face punishment with this.”

The eventual settlement between Speech First and the University of Michigan ended the Bias Response Team but allowed for a Campus Climate Support body. According to the Campus Climate Support website, the “CCS is not a disciplinary body, cannot impose discipline, and does not require participation in any aspect of CCS’s work.”

The decision could have implications for the OU Bias Response Committee.

Michigan’s response team shared similarities with OU’s response committee, a part of the OU Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The purpose of the committee, according to its website, is to “evaluate and deliberate on bias and discrimination reports.”

The University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team did not have formal punishment abilities. However, the Sixth Circuit found the response team’s ability to make referrals to the police about reported conduct was a consequence that objectively chilled speech.

OU’s Bias Response Committee website lists its members. Members include Dianne Brittingham, director of residence life, Sherri Irvin, associate dean of the graduate college, and Elizabeth Woollen, chief of OU police.

Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said the police chief’s presence on the committee may portray a purpose of punishment of speech.

“I don’t think it’s going to help the way a university presents a bias response team in a non-punitive manner if they have police sitting on the team itself,” Steinbaugh said. “I think that if you are a student and you see a bias response team and there’s a police officer on it, that’s going to sound a lot more like the team has a law enforcement or punitive purpose and not an educational or resource purpose.”

When asked about the implications of the Michigan case, the University of Oklahoma released a statement on the Bias Response Committee:

“OU’s Bias Response Committee plays a critical, but advisory, role in developing strategies to improve campus climate and support diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. OU requests feedback on all matters affecting campus climate to accurately monitor the climate to make appropriate changes – the Bias Response Committee helps in achieving this goal. The Office of Institutional Equity evaluates reports of discrimination and harassment – nonconfidential reports that are not actionable are referred to the Bias Response Committee for follow-up. The Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities acknowledges that the University cannot punish or censor student speech based on its content. However, speech that would potentially harm members of our community, including fighting words, incitement, true threats and proscribable harassment or other speech acts unprotected by the First Amendment, are prohibited.”

Senat said Woollen’s presence on OU’s Bias Response Committee clashes with the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

“If the police chief is on it, and these other vague terms (on the committee website), seem to fall closely to what the Sixth Circuit disagreed with,” Senat said.  “In other words, that can have a chilling effect on speech when it seems to have a threatened punishment. If the response team submits a report to an office or somebody that can expel a student or arrest a student for some perceived violation of speech, then I think that would be what the Sixth Circuit was frowning on.”

The decision from the Sixth Circuit is in a separate jurisdiction than the Tenth Circuit where the University of Oklahoma is located. However, Senat believes the decision could affect the Tenth Circuit.

“Of course, it’s not binding on the Tenth Circuit, which we’re in, but it can certainly be persuasive to judges and certainly a free-speech group would use it in an argument,” Senat said. “The reasoning that the majority of that three-judge panel used would be in their favor.”

Steinbaugh said the Michigan decision will influence universities throughout the country and inspire inspection of bias response teams.

“I think (the decision) requires universities to look at how they are framing and how they are presenting their bias response teams,” Steinbaugh said. “Are they presenting it as a solution that is going to entail initiating investigations or imposing discipline on students? If so, that is going to run that into questionable First Amendment territory. Are they instead, creating systems so that universities can respond with resources to the impacted students? That might be a better way to address it.”

“There is a long tradition on American campuses of speaking out against bias or some back and forth in regard to what can or can’t you say about these various marginalized groups,” said Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor in the literacy, culture and international education division at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is by no means new. I think what is newer is, first of all, we have more diverse campuses.”

As a part of this new diverse atmosphere, Ben-Porath said the response to bias on campus has changed.

“There is more attention being paid to it and some of this attention has to do with the greater diversity and the greater visibility of diversity on college campuses,” Ben-Porath said.

“Whereas historically student and some others were mostly focusing on the permissibility of speech… This was more like the focus during the Vietnam War or some prior eras when there was more intense attention given to this matter,” Ben-Porath said. “Now more of the attention is given to what are we allowed to say, what is permissible on a college campus and what is the impact. This is one change that the students are just thinking more about the impact of words.”

Ben-Porath said colleges in the past, and sometimes currently, say they do not have much leverage to counteract racist or heinous speech. Ben-Porath said this reasoning has not met today’s expectations.

“This is insufficient for many students, and I think for good reason. They come back and they say, ‘Wait, fine it’s protected but see what it’s doing, see the impact.’” Ben-Porath said. “Campuses are grappling to figure out more ways to maintain the protection for legally protected speech but still do something more, because they recognize as a result of protests by students, that it is not enough to say, ‘Stop complaining, it’s legally protected speech. There’s nothing we can do.’ It’s not enough if you want to maintain an inclusive learning environment.”

Ben-Porath said these higher expectations on campuses are the result of changing norms on campus.

“The norms are evolving, as we are seeing. There is a generational change in the attention that the students are giving to the need to attend the concerns or the marginalization or the opportunities afforded to various student groups on campus,” Ben-Porath said. “I think the changing norms are reflecting a growing commitment to realizing democratic values such as inclusion and equality in the younger generation of students.”

Steinbaugh said that universities have a responsibility to students to facilitate an inclusive atmosphere.

“I think that universities have an obligation, not just legally, to address situations that are going to make it difficult for students to live and learn in a positive campus environment. A university should not be faulted for listening to students who say, ‘Hey, these are the situations that I am encountering, what are you going to do about that or how can you help me?’” Steinbaugh said. “The question then becomes is the university able to respond to those complaints in a manner consistent with their First Amendment obligations.”

However, Senat said the First Amendment was geared to protect the very speech that bias response committees face.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has even said public university campuses are a marketplace of ideas. And in that marketplace are going to be ideas expressed that make people uncomfortable or they outright hate, that they disagree vehemently with an idea expressed by someone else,” Senat said. “That’s what happens in a marketplace of ideas. That’s what the First Amendment is intended to protect. We don’t need it for speech that’s popular that everybody agrees with. We need it for speech that’s often radical and makes people angry.”

A community affair: Norman City Council responds to illegal Airbnb rentals, plans to mandate licensing ordinance in early 2020

By Abigail Hall

It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma. A sea of crimson marches from parked cars and tailgate parties on Boyd Street, men with beers overflowing in their hands banter about the game ahead of them in the Palace on the Prairie while children run around laughing in their Sooners sweatshirts. 

A weekly tradition from September to December, Boyd Street itself is closed to vehicles as thousands of OU football fans gather as a community to eat and drink before heading to Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to cheer on the beloved Sooners football team. 

The stadium seats over 86,000 people, some of which call Norman home, but many drive from across the state, and beyond, to attend the game and stay in town for the weekend events. 

The influx of tourists in Norman, a suburb of 123,000 as of 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, for OU game days used to mean an influx in hotel use — but over the last few years, this has changed. 

Many OU fans now avoid traditional lodging options, instead opting to stay in short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, an app that allows people to share their homes with traveling guests, who pay a fee per night to stay in a room or rent the entire house. 

Airbnb has been a controversial topic of conversation since their rise to popularity in 2008. What started as a way for a few roommates to make a little extra money by renting out rooms in their apartment to conference-goers in San Francisco, is now a thriving enterprise with seven million listings worldwide in 100,000 cities, according to its website.

While hosts and travelers across the globe have responded in kind to the business model, the cities they reside in are struggling to come to terms with the alternative lodging option.

Several popular tourist destinations such as Barcelona and Paris have outlawed the use of the app in order to prevent residential neighborhoods into temporary lodging districts. Other destinations such as Santa Monica, California have come to agreements with the company to operate within the city based on Airbnb maintaining the terms of the city’s ordinance and removing listings that don’t abide by those rules. 

“Nationally no city was prepared for this,” said Jeanne Snider, Norman assistant city attorney. “The share economy has changed things and all cities have been looking for ways to pass an ordinance that best fits their city.”

The traditional model of temporary lodging such as hotels are defined as a rental of less than 30 days and are taxed by the city, Snider said. Short-term rentals operate similarly to hotels, and often are more appealing to tourists because the cost is cheaper than the alternative and offer more unique and personal experiences, according to Harvard Real Estate Review

The issue, Snider said, is short-term rentals do not collect the hotel-motel tax for the city like hotels do.

“We want the licensing fee and we want the hotel-motel tax,” Snider said. “If you’re going to rent it out like a hotel, we want (the) tax hotels collect.”

Additionally, in Norman the current zoning laws prohibit businesses to be located in residential neighborhoods, making short-term rentals illegal within city limits, said Kate Bierman, 1st Ward council member. 

“Cities tend to be somewhat reactive to disruptive technologies — it’s simply the gears of government grinding slower than the gears of innovation,” Bierman said. 

While Airbnb has been operational for more than a decade, Norman’s city councilors didn’t begin to discuss the issue until February 2018 when the company contacted the city with a proposal to collect the hotel-motel tax on behalf of hosts operating in Norman, Bierman said. 

“We realized that we could not take them up on that offer to collect the hotel-motel tax because we did not have an ordinance that allowed them to legally operate within city limits,” Bierman said.

Since 2018, the council has met in a conference meeting once a month with Snider to research and draft a city ordinance to regulate short-term rentals operating within the city. After almost two years of this process, Snider said she hopes the finalized draft ordinance will be proposed and voted upon by the council by late January 2020. 

Today there are 200 short-term rentals operating in Norman illegally, 79 percent of which are single-family homes where the owner does not live in the residence, Snider said. Yet, despite the lack of an established ordinance, there has only been one reported complaint.

“We’re finally close,” Snider said.  “I don’t anticipate any trouble…it’s just getting it done because citizens have had legitimate concerns, but I’ve always understood (their concerns), so I’m just ready to get it goin.’”

Bierman said the biggest issues the council discussed were how many short-term rental licenses would be allowed per person or entity, the potential disruption of neighborhood character and aesthetic, as well as collecting the hotel-motel tax from all short-term rentals.

For some members of the council, the increased use of Airbnb over hotels, particularly for game day weekends, is an issue. 

“We’re losing money,” said Bill Scanlon, 6th Ward council member.

For Scanlon, the issue with short-term rentals is that it puts the city at a financial loss due to the decrease of visitors staying in hotels, preferring to stay in a short-term rental, which affects the city’s hotel tax revenue.

Council members Lee Hall, 4th Ward, and Stephen Holman, 7th Ward, agreed the tax-revenue issue should be a priority in the ordinance. Additionally, Holman said he didn’t understand why the public would prefer to stay in a short-term rental over a hotel.

“I’ve never used one,” Holman said. “Seems weird. Plus, hotel showers are nice.”

Bierman said some council members were concerned about allowing an individual or entity to purchase entire areas in a residential neighborhood to rent solely as short-term rentals, and thus short-term rentals should have higher regulations than other businesses. 

However, Bierman felt strongly that short-term rentals should be considered businesses and should be regulated as much as any other business.

“We don’t put that limit on any other type of business. You can own as many liquor stores as you like, you can own as many rental properties as you like, you can own as many hotels as you like — so why would we limit the number of Airbnb’s that you can hold licenses for?” Bierman said. “Really, the crux of the issue is, is an Airbnb more comparable to a rental property or more comparable to a business? And that’s really the grey area that we were trying to navigate.”

Bierman said at a conference meeting on Nov. 26 the council agreed that an individual or entity will be allowed to apply for four short-term rental licenses, with an individual property application fee of $150 and a $50 inspection fee. If an individual or entity wants more than four short-term rental properties, they will be required to apply for a special use permit, which the council will review and approve or deny.

Bierman said the council reserves the right to deny any applicant based on failure to provide the proper documentation, a failed inspection, complaints from the applicant’s neighborhood and more.

Snider said at the Nov. 26 meeting she was authorized to draft the finalized ordinance, which the council will vote upon in the new year. 

Once the ordinance has been approved, Bierman said the City Clerk’s office will notify short-term rental business owners of the new licensing process outlined in the ordinance, and they will be required to submit their property for an inspection. 

Some of the licensing requirements agreed upon by the council that a short-term rental host must hold appropriate property insurance and documentation about city ordinances such as noise levels, parking and trash and recycling days; notify neighbors that the residence is an Airbnb and provide a local contact to respond to any issues at the property within one hour, “which means they must live in the OKC metro area,” Bierman said. 

“This is not a unique situation that Norman finds itself in,” Bierman said. “But my hope is that we are not being overly restrictive on an industry that has clearly found a niche and there’s clearly a market for.”

Colin Krapff, a Norman resident and independent contractor for the oil and gas industry, and his wife Nina, have hosted an Airbnb in a small studio apartment near Crawford and Dawes Streets in Downtown Norman since September 2018. 

At the time, Krapff and his family lived in the main home on the property with the studio apartment in the backyard, which they rented out as a full-time rental property. In 2018, when Krapff was forced to evict the tenant and update the space with all new appliances, he said he decided to market it as a weekend get-away for OU football fans and other tourists.

“(I thought), ‘Hey, let’s try this short-term rental thing since we’re just on the cusp of football season.’ And that was going to be my test period, basically the last four months of the year, to see how it did and then re-evaluate if I should turn it back to a long-term rental or continue with Airbnb,” Krapff said. “And it did exceptionally well.”

Krapff said his studio is booked 17 to 20 nights a month, with increased bookings for football game days, graduations and other university events. Additionally, Krapff said game day weekends are booked months in advance.

Krapff said he recommends local eats and shopping spots to his out-of-town guests, who often walk the three blocks from the Airbnb to Main Street, exploring and patronizing local shops that they otherwise wouldn’t if they stayed in a hotel.

“I think the best part for me is it gives me a chance to show people what the City of Norman’s all about,” Krapff said. “Because of that location it really pushes people to try out those local places as opposed to hotel chains like Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn — they’re over there by all the chain restaurants — which, is still putting money in the community, but compared to supporting local business, I mean — you really can’t beat our neighborhood.”

Krapff said he would be supportive of a city-wide ordinance and would have no issues paying an annual license fee.

“I think it makes sense if we’re helping bring people into the community and keeping more money local, and even helping the city out in that regard to let us do that,” Krapff said. “I think it’s a win-win on both sides.”

Krapff said his property’s neighborhood is a “pro-Airbnb” area, with three to four fellow Airbnb listings on the same street, which he thinks is due to the layout of the properties, many of which have secondary studios and garage apartments that “allow for a good Airbnb culture.” 

“I know there are some that pop up in what I would consider more traditional neighborhoods,” Krapff said. “And I think it can rub neighbors the wrong way just for having more traffic in the neighborhoods, and maybe seeing people that don’t recognize every day in their community.”

While Krapff understands the negative perception of Airbnb rentals, he sees it as a positive for his family and community. As a host, he encourages community members with concerns about the issue to find a host and start a conversation.

“Sure, some (hotel) money will go locally to taxes, but most of that money is going to go to (a) private equity group or large corporations running these hotel chains, and is not going to stay circulating in Norman,” Krapff said. “In reality, it’s actually benefiting your community — it provides a good, steady income stream for my family and that money is being spent with people who live in your community, which in turn is going to be continued to be spent within that community.”

The ins and outs of collegiate esports

By Katelin Hudson

The charcoal black and crimson red t-shirt fitted jerseys, complete with the University of Oklahoma logo, hang off the shoulders of 6 individuals. While the team might not be as widely known as the OU football team, the league their team competes in is known in smaller circles for its extensive prize lists for winning teams.

This team is lead by Joseph Savala, a 23-year-old OU graduate. Although he is unable to play sports at OU due to the fact he has already graduated, Savala still finds a way to interact with collegiate athletics, which he does through coaching the OU Esports Club and Sooner Esports Team.

Spending roughly 12 to 18 hours a week coaching League of Legends players for free, Savala must balance his time with a 40 hour a week paid job as a childrens specialist for the Department of Human Services. 

But Savala doesn’t mind putting in the time; in fact, he enjoys it.

“I’ve stayed as a coach for so long because I love doing it,” Savala said. “It’s really great to see all of these people with similar interests come out of their shells and grow – not only as people, but also as a team. It’s pretty great.”

League of Legends, or LoL for short, is a multiplayer online battle arena video game that is highly competitive. LoL is one of the five games that the Sooner Esports Team allows; the other four include: Overwatch, Counter Strike Global Offensive, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

These games are recognized as official esports games due to several different factors. 

ESPORTS AS AN INDUSTRY

Top esports games must be simple enough for new players to understand, while also being challenging enough to master so that longtime players can continuously grow. Additionally, high player numbers also have a lot to do with esports games. Freemium style games, such as LoL, can help to boost player numbers because players do not have to buy these games to play them. Equal playing fields and games with definitive winners also key because it means that players can’t have special advantages even if they are a higher level. Lastly, spectator appeal is an equally important factor. A game that is fun to watch increases a game’s chances of breaking into the top esports games. 

Esports as an industry has seen rapid growth over the past three years. In 2017, the global esports market was valued at $655 million. In just one year this value grew to $865 million in 2018. With this quick growth expected to continue, the number is estimated to grow to roughly $1.79 billion by the year 2022. 

One factor that aids in esports’ extensive following is the addition of streaming. Streaming schedules allow players to put themselves and their gaming skills out there for potentially massive audiences. 

Streaming has allowed gaming to transform from a niche, household hobby to an entire industry with a growing fan base.

In fact, OU Esports Club has its own Stream Team; which according to Matthew Miller, Streaming Entertainment Director, OU is one of the few college esports clubs with a dedicated team.

“The Stream Team is important because we fundraise money for the club as a whole,” Miller said. “Our little team helps by providing an additional revenue stream, while also (acting) as an advertising platform for our internal events and activities.”

But, the Stream Team is also important for community building.

“Stream Teams are so important for esports leagues because they also show a side of esports that isn’t just about competition,” Miller said.

ESPORTS AS A COMMUNITY

For many within college esports teams, it’s less about the potential revenue and more about the sense of community players feel from being a part of esports. 

According to Alexander Westphal, known as “Xander of Astora” within the gaming community,  the OU Esports Club helped him break out of his shell and find the friends he was searching for.

“When I first came to OU, I was considering joining a fraternity for the camaraderie, but that sort of environment didn’t really suit me, but I found what I was looking for in the esports club and with my team,” Westphal said.

The esports community at OU is large. With roughly 500 members and counting, the OU Esports Club is home to many on OU’s campus who share an affinity for playing video games. While many of these friendships are supported through online servers, many friendships are maintained even outside of set meeting times.

“Being part of the community, specifically the competitive side, has affected me positively, as I’m currently sharing an apartment with one of my teammates who has since become one of my best friends,” Westphal said. 

ESPORTS AS A REGIMEN 

A specific room for the University of Oklahoma Esports Club and Sooner Esports has yet to be assigned or constructed, but that doesn’t deter members from meeting. Members either meet at other members houses or, more commonly, online. 

With one click on the bluish purple hue of the Discord app icon, players are able to connect with others through voice chats, game invites and instant messaging without leaving the house.

Members must be on Discord roughly 12 hours a week. They meet after their classes, after work and after meals. And missing is not an option – not logging in counts as an absence, which members are only allowed three of.

While the name “esports” might come from a lack of a better word, esports certainly reflects many of the same ideologies that major sports emphasize.

Those who engage in esports competitively must put in a lot of time and effort to improve or even stay at the same level.

“In order to be on the competitive side of things, our teams must practice – there’s no way around it,” Savala said. “Coaches also have to stay on top of things too. They must know the ins and outs of a game, see where (players) are messing up and find ways to mediate that.”

THE FUTURE OF ESPORTS

The OU Esports Club and Sooner Esports team became officially licensed by OU at the beginning of 2019; which means they are able to use the OU logo on their website, at events and on their most recently designed esport jerseys.

As the esports industry continues to grow, more and more colleges are taking competitive online gaming more seriously, licensing teams and changing the way the esports conversation is handled.

As of Fall 2019, ten colleges across the country offer an esports major and minor program. Additionally, 54 colleges currently provide esports scholarships to top players.

Russel Hanks, a League of Legends CStar known as “Schiecenzoria,” believes esports growth will continue for years to come.

“It seems like more and more corporations are realizing that gaming is an unexploited land of potential profit,” Hanks said. “New streaming platforms bring gaming into the entertainment industries: which is one of the largest (industries) America has to offer. Because of (these two factors), I think this momentum will continue as the years go on.”

Oklahoma politics: Will the pendulum swing back?

By Brooklyn Wayland

The pendulum swings back and forth.

Until 2005, the Oklahoma Legislature was controlled by the Democrats. In 2009, the Senate joined in on Republican rule. The Republican lead continued to grow and in 2011, the entire Oklahoma Legislature, from the governor’s office to the House and Senate, was Republican-held. While it was a blue state primarily until the 2000s, as pendulum politics would suggest, it swings both ways. Since then and to this day, the Oklahoma Legislature is primarily Republican. 

Will the pendulum be swinging back any time soon? Michael Crespin, director and curator of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center and professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, doesn’t believe so. He doesn’t believe that will be seen for some time. Oklahoma is a red state and it will continue to be for a long time. However, we have seen more urban counties starting to be a little purple. 

“We are beginning to look like every other state,” said Patrick Hall, former leader of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. “For so long, the Oklahoma Democratic Party was a rural-based party, and now it is primarily urban-based.” 

It was this switch that Hall would call, “the resurrection of the Democratic Party.” 

When term limits nearly wiped out the party in Oklahoma, Democrats worried they would not recover. However, reaction to the election of Donald Trump as president helped to rebuild the party, bringing it into the urban areas and counties; specifically, Oklahoma, Tulsa, Comanche and Cleveland county have led the charge, which are home to the eight largest cities in the state of Oklahoma. 

In 2008, Keith Gaddie, professor at OU who specializes in Southern politics, recalls the small Democratic victory in Oklahoma City when Obama was elected president in 2008. Although a small victory of only the city, he says it’s an example of the Democratic party shifting to be a urban-based party. 

Still the minority party in Oklahoma, even with a little purple sneaking into urban areas like Oklahoma County, running as a Democrat in an intensely red state is still a difficult task. Hall said that Democrats have to inherently work harder: The Oklahoma leadership backs Republicans without fail. 

Still there have been a few Democrats who have pushed through and won a seat in Oklahoma. One example is Jacob Rosecrants, a middle school teacher, who started his campaign in a primarily Republican district with $300 and no campaign experience. It didn’t matter though. Rosecrants had a message, and he was ready to share it.

“It was just me having a message that people agreed with,” Rosecrants said. 

Rosecrants started his grassroots campaign for the house seat in Oklahoma House District 46. This district usually voted 60 percent Republican, and as a Democrat, Rosecrants knew he had his work cut out for him. 

Name recognition was key. He spent hours knocking on doors and listening to voters. It also helped that many Oklahomans were ready for change. They wanted an outsider like Rosecrants, who took an interest in issues they were passionate about. 

“The people in my district wanted an outsider, and they wanted someone who cared about the issues they cared about,” Rosecrants said. 

It just so happened in 2016 in Oklahoma everyone cared about public education. 

This helped Rosecrants as well considering he was a public school educator. 

“The Republicans here (in Oklahoma) are fiscally conservative,” Rosecrants said. “But, I would say, they are socially liberal.” 

It is because of this that he says he doesn’t need to go into any situation clinging to his party identification. Rather, he just goes in as the representative who wants to hear from his constituency. This resonated with voters and in a special election in 2017, won him the seat as representative for Oklahoma House District 46.

“The more liberal-leaning the U.S. gets, the more red these Southern states, especially in these rural areas,” Rosecrants said. “I think it had to do a lot with Trump; they really like his message of “I’m an outsider.” 

Gaddie agrees. Rural areas have always been conservative although they weren’t always Republican. 

“The more liberal and the stronger the national Democrats get, the more intensely the rural whites have doubled down, grasping conservative values,” Gaddie said. “That is the foundation of American culture.” 

Still, a good Democratic candidate with an exceptional campaign can beat an unexpecting incumbent. Kendra Horn proved that by winning House District 5 in Oklahoma in 2018. Sticking to those bread and butter issues like lowering prescription drug costs and military spending, Horn was able to win over the constituency in House District 5 against Steve Russell. 

Gaddie said anyone who tells you they saw that coming is lying. It wasn’t until late in the game anyone thought she could do it. She went against a Republican incumbent who didn’t believe he needed to think twice about her. This led to her election despite being in a still primarily red (but more purple than most) district. The Oklahoma State Election Board recorded only 37.91% Democrat in District 5. 

“Voter identification doesn’t determine vote choice,” Gaddie said. There was a certain crossover appeal when it came to Horn’s campaign. Horn simply caught her opponent flat-footed and appealed to voters.”

This, and some shift toward a more moderate Legislature, may be the only shift of the pendulum seen in Oklahoma in a while. 

Rosecrants sees the Republicans in office as much more moderate than in the past which is a great reflection of the average Oklahoma voter. One could infer this is the slight shift of the pendulum. 

Emily Virgin, representative for Oklahoma House District 44 and minority party leader in the House of Representatives, believes this is exactly what Oklahoma voters are looking for now. 

“I think voters are tired of this extreme partisanship, and I think that has been a good thing for the state,” Virgin said.

People across the state are beginning to see when it comes to these big ticket policy items, such as affordable and accessible health care and proper educational funding, they all are on the same page. 

Virgin mentioned in the past six years or so Oklahomans have proven to be somewhat progressive or at least moderate when it comes to some state questions such as Oklahoma State Question 788, the Medical Marijuana Legalization Initiative. 

She believes we will see this again in the next election cycle, pushing toward an even more moderate Legislature. This makes sense keeping the idea of the pendulum eventually swinging back toward and more moderate and maybe even a blue state over a long period of time, as Virgin believes is only natural. 

Both Virgin and Rosecrants agree when running for office in Oklahoma, the central questions are not party identification; rather, they are more about the issues Oklahomans care about most. 

“It is all about meeting people where they’re at,” Virgin said.  

That is exactly what successful Republican and Democrat politicians in Oklahoma are doing.

Throughout Oklahoma history, it has been a primarily red state, and while we may not see a drastic change to a blue state any time soon as Gaddie, Hall and Crespin all believe, we have seen evolution, but we haven’t seen enough to enact real change or believe running as a Democrat in a primarily red state is any easy task. 

The future is still unknown when it comes to Oklahoma politics, but any pendulum swings back and forth; it’s just a matter of pace.