COMMENTARY: Grambling Players Take a Stand

Charles E. Sutton | 10/21/2013, 12:25 p.m.
We've consistently heard the rhetoric of college players and their supporters on such issues of player compensation and concussion reform. ...
Courtesy of gram.edu

Over the years, we've seen players boycott certain sporting events and even go so far as to go on strike. But these stoppages in play were events that everyone saw coming. I've often wondered what would happen if players unexpectedly refused to show up for a game.

Last weekend, I got my answer.

Football players from Grambling State University began boycotting their own team in protest of what they called unfit equipment and playing conditions. The nearly weeklong boycott finally ending Monday, but not before Grambling was forced to forfeit a road game Saturday against Jackson State University after much of the team refused to travel.

There are a couple of available dates in November when the game could be played. But if the two teams don't play this season, Grambling's unwillingness to play would result in a loss on its record.

We've consistently heard the rhetoric of college players and their supporters on such issues of player compensation and concussion reform. But meaningful progress is based on what you do, not what you say. Last week, the Grambling players decided to couple their talking with action.

First, the players walked out of a meeting with university president Frank Pogue, then began boycotting practices. By Friday, most players chose not to travel to Jackson State, which would have been Jackson State's homecoming game.

The Grambling players complained about mold, mildew and the overall deterioration of the athletic complex. There is concern amongst that the uniforms are not adequately cleaned, which could lead to an increased risk of staph infection. The weight room's floor is in disrepair, and it hasn't been addressed because of a dispute between the administration and former head coach Doug Williams, who was fired last month.

But that's not all. Players also griped about having to travel 17 hours by bus for one trip and 14 hours by bus for another. Grambling lost both games and is winless in seven starts. A university spokesman indicated that extreme cuts in state funding had caused the school to make some very difficult choices.

Historically, much of the discussion about college athletic reform has centered around the financial exploitation of players and the low graduation rates of black players. This conversation has typically focused on black players participating at largely white schools. What's important to note about the Grambling boycott is that players at a historically black college expressed concern that the school was exploiting their athletic ability.

The protest is aimed at an exploitative system that targets all college players, whether they attend an HBCU or a big-time Division I school. The issues at an Atlantic Coast Conference or Big Ten school are different from the issues at Grambling, but competitors at each school play by the same NCAA rules. Those rules buttress an parasitic and archaic system.

Fifty years ago, college students from HBCUs staged lunch-counter protests that caught fire, gained momentum and blazed a trail of change all across the South. Today, football players from an HBCU decided to take on its own university in an effort to bring international attention to the exploitation and inequity of college sports.

Could an uprising at a small school in Louisiana lead to a national movement that that could significantly change college sports as we know it? It'll be interesting to watch.