The Grambling State University football team plays in the unheralded Southwestern Athletic Conference, in the division beneath the big boys. They had an 11-game losing streak, stretching back into the 2012 season.
In short, this was not a team that warranted national attention.
But the Grambling Tigers finally got some last month. No, they didn’t notch their first win that day – or even another loss. They didn’t play – and it wasn’t due to bad weather or a bye week. The players simply refused to take the field.
Grambling is a historically black college with a rich tradition. Their legendary coach, Eddie Robinson, won 408 games, which set the record Joe Paterno would break, then relinquish, due to NCAA sanctions.
One of Robinson’s biggest stars was Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl title.
But, as a coach, Williams was more beloved than successful. His Grambling teams couldn’t get it done, while the school itself suffered draconian budget cuts. The players had to travel by bus and work out in a weight room so decrepit, several suffered staph infections.
This fall, it all came to a head.
Williams raised money for a new floor, but not through the proper channels, so the school didn’t spend the money. After the team lost its first seven games, the Grambling president fired Coach Williams, without discussing the decision with the players, before or after. The school replaced Williams with interim head coach George Ragsdale, which pleased the players even less.
For the players, it was the last straw. They were tired of playing in a second-rate, unsafe program. They were tired of being taken for granted. And they quickly tired of the new coach the school had foisted upon them.
So, before the team’s October 19th game at Jackson State in Mississippi, the players voted to stay home. In other words, to boycott.
Yes, this ticked off Jackson State. It was a league game, after all, and Jackson State’s homecoming too, which cost the city some serious money.
Still, the news faded fast. Who really cares whether a winless, second-tier team plays or not?
But it should get the attention of the people who run college football, because they better understand something that everyone else seemed to miss: in the current equation, the players have absolutely no power, until they sit down. Then, all of a sudden, they have all the power.
Last fall, when I was doing research for my latest book, “Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football,” I walked down to see the tailgaters before the Michigan-Michigan State game. I visited the massive Pioneer High School parking lot kitty-corner from Michigan Stadium, where, every football Saturday, hundreds of RVs and countless cars disgorge coolers, grills, generators, footballs, cornhole boards and beanbags, and a sea of tailgating fans.
I ran into an old friend of mine, former Michigan cross-country coach Ron Warhurst. He won two NCAA titles as a runner and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. As a coach, his runners won eight Big Ten titles, and twelve Top 10 finishes in the NCAA.
Warhurst looked around at the thousands of people happily spending about $500 on that day’s game – and many of them much more. Two golf courses across Main Street were just as full. So was the stadium parking lot and dozens of residential blocks within a mile of the Big House.
“You look at all this, you look at how much money people spend, and how much those guys make,” he said, pointing a thumb at the Big House, “and you have to think, one of these times the players are going to run out of that tunnel, sit down on the benches, and refuse to play until they get paid.
“One of these days.”
William Friday, the former president of the University of North Carolina, told the writer Taylor Branch that if a certain team – not his own school’s – reached the NCAA basketball championship game a few years ago, “they were going to dress and go out on the floor, but refuse to play.” Because the team didn’t make it to the finals, we’ll never know if they would have followed through. But any team in the tournament could do it, jeopardizing the $1 billion March Madness generates in TV ads alone, the highest ad revenue of any sporting event.
Just as Warhurst postulated, any football team could do the same thing – which demonstrates just how fragile the sport’s foundation really is. As the salaries of coaches and athletic directors soar into the millions, while the players’ income remains stuck at zero, it’s not hard to imagine a point when the players finally say, “Enough.”
When Warhurst told me that, we both assumed that day was a long way off. But after the Grambling players boycotted, I now believe the future might be coming a lot faster than we thought.
One question remains: Do the people who make their millions off those amateur athletes know it?
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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