This week, the Oklahoma State University football program has been rocked by a five-part Sports Illustrated report that paints a portrait of an out-of-control program rife with sex, drugs, money, and academic impropriety. The report's first section, "The Money," alleges that players were paid in a number of ways, ranging from simple cash handouts to overpayment for jobs in which they did little, if any, work. As an example of the latter, the article cites stories from former OSU player Seymore Shaw, who says he received hundreds of dollars for doing tasks that took him about an hour for a woman named Kay Norris.
Kay Norris, who died of cancer in 2006, was commonly known as "Momma Norris." In a letter published by Tulsa World, her family expressed their "shock and heartbreak" at the characterization of their mother in the Sports Illustrated article. Rather than a crooked enabler of a corrupt program, Kay Norris was, according to her family, a guardian and guide for the players akin to Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose story was told in the hit film The Blind Side.
Kimberly Norris Guerrero (Colville/Salish Kootenai/Cherokee) is an accomplished actress who originated the role of Johnna Monevata in August: Osage County, played Jerry's Native American girlfriend Winona on Seinfeld, and can currently be seen as Wilma Mankiller in The Cherokee Word for Water. She is also Kay Norris' daughter by adoption. (Her biological mother is Linda Standing Cloud of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, whom she describes as "an equally extraordinary woman and an incredibly positive pillar within the healing community of Native America.")
Guerrero shared her feelings on the portrayal of Kay Norris in the Sports Illustrated piece with ICTMN.
What was your family's involvement with the Oklahoma State football program when you were growing up?
Our family bled orange, we were one of the few families in the small Oklahoma town of Idabel, or for that matter the whole of McCurtain County, who openly supported OSU. Most everyone we knew were stone-to-the-bone OU Sooner fans. But mom and dad had both graduated from OSU in 1959 where they were incredibly active in student programs, were good friends with several OSU athletes and remained totally engaged with all things OSU throughout their lives. Every weekend, and I mean every weekend that OSU had a home football game, we’d pack up the van and, after our high school football game was over, hit the road for the nearly five-hour ride up to Stillwater. We stayed in the hotel at the OSU Student Union and I grew up knowing the football coaches, athletic directors and several of the players. The OSU athletic family was like our extended family, and I have to admit, especially as a kid, it was awesome.
In the letter printed by Tulsa World, your family brought up Kay's focus on "compliance" — how would you characterize Kay's feeling about the NCAA rules?
Mom would call me regularly during her time volunteering for OSU and catch me up on all the boys and how they were doing, both in the classroom and on the field. I remember her bemoaning having to keep checking in with compliance office to make sure that doing something seemingly innocuous, like letting [OSU wide receiver] Rashaun Woods fish in their backyard, was within NCAA rules. She thought several of these rules were “kind of ticky-tack” but no one, and I mean no one, was more afraid of violating NCAA rules than Kay Norris. The woman knew her sports and her sports history. SMU anyone? The “Death Penalty?” Mom had seen what could happen to a program that broke NCAA rules and she would have never compromised the integrity of a program she had loved and supported for decades, not to mention the individuals that were a part of that program.
There are several athletic programs that operate under a win-at-all-costs philosophy, a "do what you have to do and we’ll look the other way" attitude in order to rise to elite status; Oklahoma State has never been one of them. Having been privy to private conversations about the inner workings of OSU football, at least until the time of my mom’s death in 2006, I know that the powers that be at OSU would rather win the right way or not win at all—but make no mistake, they want to win.
On a deeply personal level, mom just possessed an extremely high level of integrity. She was a dot-your-i’s, cross-your-t’s kind of woman, who did the right thing even when no one was looking. For example, it was really rural where I grew up and I remember riding in the car with mom shortly after I’d gotten my driver's permit. She was running an errand out into the country and we came to a four-way stop and I noticed she didn’t roll through it like Daddy would have, she came to a complete stop. And I was like, “Mom, there’s not another car around for miles, why are you stopping?” And she looked at me like I was crazy and said, “because there’s a stop sign.”
With respect to all the work she did with the players — what was in it for her?
It's even more — what's the word?– infuriating or laughable that mom was smeared in a section of the story called "The Money." Let's talk money. People keep reporting that mom was a "staff member" or "employee". She wasn't. She was never paid a dime for all that she did for the university and the players. She built OSU's Athletic Hall of Fame from the bottom up: I was there to help her before the grand opening and she was literally doing the displays herself by hand — and many of them have never been touched since. I mean, we're talking not hours, but years of service as a volunteer.
Mom absolutely loved sports. And she was a born teacher. And she was an incredible mom and grandmother. Those passions collided beautifully later in life with her volunteer work with OSU athletics. But it wasn’t only at the collegiate level. She coached my softball team, kept the stats for my brothers basketball little league basketball and baseball teams, helped run the booster club for our high school athletics and would drive my brother 7 hours roundtrip for quarterback lessons.
It was a natural fit for her to work with the football and basketball players of her alma mater because she absolutely lived for watching people excel beyond even their own expectations. If she could do anything to help make that dream a reality, she would do it.
And to clarify, my mom wasn’t all about winning. I know it sounds contradictory because she was incredibly competitive, but she believed in the philosophy of being your best, doing your best that particular day. And regardless of whether you came first or last, won or lost, you got to go to Dairy Queen for a dip cone if you could look at yourself in the mirror and say, I practiced hard and I did my best. And if you couldn’t, you didn’t.
Seymore Shaw, the player accusing my mom in the SI article, was a good player but never great, though she was always pushing for him to do his best on and off the field. She was also very close with Rashaun Woods and several players that went on to play in the NFL and NBA but that was never the reason behind her affection and energy, she was just “Momma Norris” and a good momma loves all her kids well, not because one performs better than another, but just because they’re her kids.
Did you read the whole expose? What do you think about it?
I’ve read the portions of the SI article that have been released so far. And there is a ton of smoke. A ton. It will be up to investigators to see if there is fire beneath, or if it is a smoke bomb released by the journalists to sell magazines. If the journalism behind the entire article is anything like the horrific absence of due diligence they used to drag my deceased mom into this, I would expect the NCAA investigation to prove the content erroneous.
That said, having grown up around college football, having been a pompom girl at UCLA and seeing the kind of stuff the players went through first hand (girls, drugs, alcohol, etc.) and being the sister-in-law of an athletic director, UCLA’s Dan Guerrero, I know there are shady people and goings-on that haunt even the most pristine programs. That kind of power and prestige attracts unhealthy people and temptations on all sides. And an athletic program has to be committed to integrity from the top down, like UCLA and OSU. Not just in word but in deed. And people like my mom, the boots on the ground so to speak, are the very ones who help equip these student-athletes to understand, recognize and ultimately choose right over wrong.
The letter submitted to the Tulsa World made reference to the film The Blind Side, and the role of so many "mommas" who look after athletes. Do you think that by implicating Kay in this article, Sports Illustrated may harm a necessary institution that has grown up around college sports? Could the magazine be discouraging or scaring off the Kay Norrises of the future?
This is my greatest concern and if she were here—and boy I wish she were— she would positively chomp at the bit to be a part of a larger national discussion alongside Leigh Anne Tuohy and so many others on how to support NCAA athletes within the rules. These boys are bombarded by negative influences every day. And these mommas help them fly straight. I hope that instead of this article discouraging or scaring off the Momma Kay’s of the present and future, it will help them to navigate, like she did, the NCAA rules so young athletes can reach their full potential as human beings. Perhaps they could even create online social networks to support each other.
I suppose this is what our family has taken away from all this, once we settled down from the initial shock and outrage of the SI article. Perhaps it was all designed to share the true story of mom’s involvement with OSU football and its players. And be a warning, a cautionary tale to those folks out there who don’t remember what happened to SMU, or even more recently, to USC after they were caught violating NCAA rules. If you really love the program, even if you really, really want to win, it’s just not worth it to do it outside the rules. It’s not worth it to put the program and athletes you love in jeopardy. And in the era of social media, the truth will come out.
Time will tell if the veritable hurricane of allegations hurled at OSU by Sports Illustrated will stick, but if they do, then there should be appropriate punishment.
But there one person who should not be punished, she should be positively celebrated—that person is my mom.