Commentary

Grambling football team not bluffing

Updated: October 19, 2013, 10:16 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Feel the power of the college athlete. Don't believe a group of young men can unite for a cause, stay together and demand change? We don't know how the administration and football staff at Grambling State would have answered that question before this week, but we definitely know the answer now.

The Grambling football team capped its weeklong protest of conditions within the program by refusing to get on the buses for Jackson, Miss., on Friday afternoon. The game has been canceled, and the Tigers' impressive show of solidarity continues.

It's a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented show of force, and it has raised so many issues – from facilities to transportation to the very purpose of college athletics – that it's difficult to decide where to start. State funding for the school has been cut 57 percent since 2007-08, according to the school's fundraising literature. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state legislature have cut $269 million from higher education since 2009, the year Jindal turned down federal stimulus funds. Grambling lost $6 million, causing the school's Office of Finance and Administration to say the school has gone from "state 'funded'" to "state 'assisted.'"

Former coach Doug Williams, a school legend whose firing earlier this season is a big part of what prompted this, found himself caught in a bureaucratic vortex when he got new flooring donated for the team's dilapidated weight room only to have it locked away, unused, because he failed to follow protocol, Sports Illustrated reported. The team has been forced to bus to games in Kansas City and Indianapolis, the latter 15 hours each way and evidently the catalyst for the players' decision to boycott practice Wednesday and Thursday, and ultimately refuse to play against Jackson State.

[+] EnlargeGrambling State Buses
Sean Isabella/The News-StarBuses line up Friday on the Grambling State campus to take the Tigers' to Jackson State. Players did not show up and the buses left empty before 5 p.m. ET.

"In a way, I'm encouraged that athletes are standing up for themselves," says David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor and member of the Drake Group, a think tank whose mission is to promote academic integrity in collegiate sports. "Without saying who's right or wrong, it's pretty amazing what they've been able to pull off. Walking out en masse is a pretty tough thing to do."

The Grambling team seems to have figured out how to conduct an effective protest in record time. Maybe it was the combined 30 hours they spent traveling by bus back and forth from Grambling to Indianapolis last weekend. Probably gave them a little time to think, organize and list their grievances.

The protest has been hermetically sealed. There have been no dissenting voices from within the team, no breaks in the chain. Senior safety Naquan Smith has been the designated spokesman; he conducted an impromptu press conference Friday on campus. From the outside, it looks like an operation the Teamsters would be proud to call their own.

The players forced the administration to take a step back. The team got an interim coach they didn't like, George Ragsdale, ousted on Wednesday. They claim administrators threatened to yank their scholarships for voicing their displeasure during a Monday night meeting; media attention and the players' civil dissent have taken that threat off the table.

The players don't sound like prima donnas. The atmosphere around the 0-7 team sounds untenable, maybe even unsustainable. They have only six full-time coaches, which means some of them have to coach more than one position. Smith told Sports Illustrated the team doesn't receive enough protein drinks for everyone to share. They ration it out, lifeboat-style, to guys who are deemed to need it most. Sophomore defensive back Dwight Amphy told SI the players aren't expecting 40 different uniform combinations and an iPad in every locker. "We knew we weren't going to LSU," he said.

Consider for a moment the logistics of the Tigers' trip to Indianapolis: The bus left Grambling at 6 p.m. Thursday and arrived at 9 a.m. Friday. Is this – 15 hours in a bus between Thursday and Friday, 15 more between Saturday and Sunday – the student-athlete model the NCAA wants to promote? Is this the embodiment of the mission statement that calls for the NCAA "to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount"?

In a twisted way, that bus ride seems to have been very educational, after all. It didn't take long after unloading back in Grambling for the Tigers to go from losers of 17 of their last 18 to national news. Reporters attempting to reach the practice facility on Thursday were turned away by police officers and barricades. Not surprisingly, school spokesman Will Sutton's voicemail box was full Friday afternoon.

It's a courageous stand, and a fascinating story, culminating in a fleet of empty buses pulling away from the university. It's loosely connectable but potentially as important as the All Players United movement.

"We marginalize these athletes so much," Ridpath says, "they don't understand the power they have."

The downside of the power play is the called bluff. The school's administration, facing worse cuts next year after already raising tuition, could shrug its shoulders and close down the entire program. Football doesn't make money for Grambling; it ran a deficit of more than $1 million last year. Without the appearance of a huge T. Boone Pickens-type donor, it's fair to ask whether a school like Grambling -- despite its rich history -- can continue to sustain not just football but all athletics under the current constraints.

So that's the fear: no more football. Then again: 30 hours in a bus to lose 48-0; mildewed facilities; borderline dangerous weight-room flooring while new flooring remains locked behind bureaucratic stubbornness.

As with any power play, it all comes down to what you're willing to risk. At this point, with the situation bad and the promise for worse ahead, the Grambling football players could reasonably believe they aren't risking nearly as much as they stand to gain.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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