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 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, they said, so the school didn’t spend the money. After the team lost its first seven games, the 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.
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.”
Before the Michigan-Michigan State game last year, I ran into former Michigan cross-country coach Ron Warhurst. He looked around at the thousands of people happily spending hundreds on that day’s game—and many of them much more. Two golf courses, two huge parking lots and thousands of front yards within a mile of the Big House were all packed.
“You look at all this,” he told me, “you look at how much money people spend, and how much the coaches make, and you have to think, one of these days the players are going to run out of that tunnel, sit down on the benches, and refuse to play.
“One of these days.”
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?