Barry Switzer, who won three national championships and 12 conference titles in 16 years as the University of Oklahoma’s head football coach, today called on Gov. Kevin Stitt to issue an unambiguous statement opposing cockfighting after the governor recorded a video to “cheer” on a gamefowl breeder group that is seeking to reduce criminal punishments for the blood sport.
Switzer, an animal advocate who has weighed in on political issues before, also said he will oppose any attempt to weaken the voter-approved law that bans cockfighting and associated activities in Oklahoma.
“I know a little something about sports and my state of Oklahoma. That’s why I am very disappointed in our governor for encouraging the barbaric blood sport of cockfighting in our great state. Staged fighting between animals is cruel, immoral, deeply unpopular in our state, and a felony to boot,” Switzer said in his statement (embedded below). “I hope that Gov. Stitt made a terrible mistake and that he will correct the record and indicate he opposes cockfighting and will oppose any legislation at the Capitol to weaken our law. I voted for the anti-cockfighting law in 2002 and supported every word of it.”
A spokeswoman for Stitt said the Republican governor, reelected last year to a second four-year term, is opposed to cockfighting and does not support a bill pending in the Legislature that would lessen certain penalties related to cockfighting activities.
“He hasn’t supported any attempt to weaken the law. There’s no support, no endorsement from him,” Abegail Cave, the governor’s director of communications, told NonDoc on Wednesday. “He’s opposed to cockfighting, he’s opposed to animal cruelty. The video never said that he was supportive of cockfighting, so I’m confused as to why this is kind of blown up to be like that. He never said like, ‘Yeah, let’s go cockfighters!’ He said you’re raising game fowl, you’re raising roosters.”
Switzer’s statement was in response to Stitt recording a video message supporting a game-fowl organization that backs legislation to reduce the criminal penalties related to cockfighting. But Cave said Stitt does not want to legalize the activity.
“If they brought a ‘let’s legalize cockfighting’ piece of legislation, no, we would not entertain that,” Cave said.
Stitt’s video, which lasted just over one minute, was shown Nov. 12 during the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission’s annual legislative meeting in McAlester. In the recording, Stitt told the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, which is a private group and not a state agency, that he wanted “to cheer you on from the sidelines.”
“We need to protect the nearly 5,000 game-fowl farmers across Oklahoma and lift up our rural and municipal economies,” Stitt said. “I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together in the next legislative session.”
The statement by Switzer, who coached the Dallas Cowboys in 1995 to a Super Bowl victory and is one of only three coaches to win championships in both the NCAA and the NFL, was released by the Kirkpatrick Policy Group in cooperation with Animal Wellness Action. Switzer was OU head coach from 1973 to 1988, winning national championships in 1974, 1975 and 1985. He coached the Dallas Cowboys from 1994 to 1997, winning Super Bowl XXX after the 1995 season.
Last week, the animal welfare organizations released a statement from former Republican Gov. Frank Keating — who called Stitt’s video message an embarrassment — and held a press conference with former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who said Stitt is “associating himself with lawlessness, and that’s not proper for any statewide elected official.”
Blake Pearce, the secretary and policy chairman of the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, told NonDoc in response to that press conference that the group’s goal is to promote the interests of game fowl breeders in Oklahoma. He said the estimated 5,000 game fowl breeders in the state raise the birds and sell them mostly to buyers in other countries who breed or show the birds.
“Some of them do compete with the offspring, and that is completely legal in federal law, state law, any state,” Pearce said. “It would be illegal if I shipped them to these countries and then they would go fight with them.”
Concern about pending cockfighting legislation
During the 2023 regular session, HB 2530 by Rep. Justin “J.J.” Humphrey (R-Lane) advanced halfway through the legislative process after two attempts on the floor of the House of Representatives. The measure was sent to the State Senate, where it did not receive a hearing this year. It can be considered by the Senate during the 2024 regular session, which begins in February.
HB 2530 began as a proposal to reduce cockfighting-related penalties from felonies to misdemeanors, and House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) stood near the door of the meeting room during a 5-2 committee vote, according to people in attendance.
Prior to its floor hearing, the bill was amended in the House to allow county-specific elections on the topic. On March 20, HB 2530 initially failed by one vote, 50-47, on the House floor, but it passed the next day, 51-42. The measure proposes lessening cockfighting crimes from felonies to misdemeanors if 5 percent of a county’s voters sign an initiative petition and then a majority of voters approve it on a ballot.
Arguments against the bill, however, focus on the barbaric nature of the “sport,” which pits naturally aggressive birds against one another in what can often be a fight to the death. Spectators most often gamble on which bird will be victorious. Often, metal spurs are added to the birds’ legs.
Cave said Stitt did not say he would sign any legislation in his video to the game-fowl group. She said HB 2530 as it is written would not be considered by his office if it were to be approved by senators, several of whom have accepted campaign contributions from the group over the past year.
“We all know how much of a hurdle the Senate is, so I wouldn’t expect that it would even make it our office,” Cave said of HB 2530. “But if it did, no, we would not entertain that.”
During his coaching career, Switzer rarely spoke publicly about his political views. In 2002, Oklahoma voters criminalized hosting, attending and raising birds for cockfighting events. Turnout for and against State Question 687 in rural Oklahoma remains one of several factors often referenced for then-state Sen. Brad Henry’s surprising victory over then-U.S. Rep. Steve Largent in the state’s 2002 gubernatorial election.
In 2016, Switzer released a letter voicing his opposition to SQ 777, which would have exempted agriculture and agribusinesses from complying with state laws passed in 2015 and later, unless a “compelling state interest” was involved. Supporters called it the “right to farm” measure, while opposition groups referred to it as the “right to harm” and cited concerns about water quality, animal welfare and small farmer interests in their campaign. Ultimately, 58.4 percent of voters sided with Switzer and rejected SQ 777.
Opponents to cockfighting say Oklahomans disapprove of the blood sport, referring to an April 2023 Sooner Survey, in which fewer than 10 percent of Oklahomans think cockfighting should be legal. Nearly 90 percent of voters favor the existing statewide ban that makes cockfighting a felony, according to the poll.
Asked his thoughts on the state’s cockfighting ban in the wake of Stitt’s video, Lt. Gov Matt Pinnell sided with the majority of those polled in April who supported the existing prohibition.
“I am comfortable with the law now,” Pinnell told NonDoc.
Since the governor’s video message was played to the Oklahoma Gamefowl Commission, leaders of the group posted on Facebook asking members to oppose the nomination of Sara Hill, former attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, as a federal judge in northern Oklahoma.
“Our governor, Kevin Stitt, has asked that we call and email Senators Lankford and Mullin to rescind their approval of Ms. Sara Hill as a federal judge in Northern Oklahoma,” the Facebook post read.
The post provided sample letters that members could send to U.S. Sens. James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin, who both have expressed support for Hill’s nomination to the bench in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
Cave said Stitt, who has opposed Hill’s nomination, did not request that the Gamefowl Commission make the post.
“That was not a directive from our office, I can assure you of that,” she said. “There was no directive from our office or the governor to my understanding.”
(Editor’s note: The Sustainable Journalism Foundation received a grant this year from Kirkpatrick Foundation, a separate legal entity from the Kirkpatrick Policy Group, which is an independent 501(c)(4) political organization. Kirkpatrick Foundation has a mission to support arts, culture, education, animal wellbeing, environmental conservation and historic preservation, but it does not engage in lobbying activity.)