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Patrick Hruby

Power to the Players?

Explaining the Grambling State football strike

Sports on Earth

Editor’s note: following reports that players on the Grambling State football team had ended their six-day strike, Sports on Earth asked writer Patrick Hruby to share his thoughts on the matter.

The Grambling State football team refused to play a scheduled game against Jackson State last Saturday. Why?

Essentially, Grambling State’s players went on strike. Last Tuesday, members of the now 0-8 team met with the school’s president and athletic director to air their complaints; following that, they refused to practice; on Friday, they declined to board team buses bound for Jackson State’s campus. According to a letter sent to university administrators and obtained by the press, players were upset about:

* Hazardous working conditions. The players claim Grambling’s athletic complex is rife with water leaks and consequently “filled with mildew and mold” — a problem so severe, they say, that when ”Lamar University came to play our team they refused to go in the locker room for half time.” Moreover, the team’s uniforms, gear and weight room reportedly are all in bad condition, causing players to trip while working out. “We as student-athletes would also like better detergent for our uniforms and practice uniforms,” the letter says. “The uniforms are poorly cleaned and contribute to the multiple cases of staph infection. Several players have been infected with staph multiple times.”

* Expenses. The players claim that they have to pay for their own sports drinks and protein shakes, and also drink from gardening hoses. During summer workouts and camp, the letter says, the players ”found out that we would not be housed for camp. Players that live off campus were responsible for commuting back and forth to campus three times a day, not to mention, we were already paying for summer school out of pocket.”

* Travel. According to the letter, the team bused to away games this season in Kansas City and Indianapolis, each city more than 600 miles from campus. The second game saw the Grambling State players depart at 6 p.m. on a Thursday night and arrive at 9 a.m. on Friday morning, which left players “drained and exhausted” in a 48-0 loss to Alcorn State.

“It does something to your body, being on the bus that long,” senior safety and team spokesman Naquan Smith told Sports Illustrated. “We were kinda upset the other team got a chance to fly there. It wasn’t fair.”

The letter also notes that “both the president and athletic director traveled by plane.”

* Athletic administration. The letter claims that the school’s alumni association and a football booster group both have attempted to donate money specifically to the football program, only to have Grambling State reject the help because administrators want to use the funds for the school as a whole. The players also were upset that the school fired head coach Doug Williams — who led the team to a conference title in 2011 — just two games into the season, did not meet with the squad to discuss the layoff for more than a month and failed to replace Williams with “a competent” interim coach.

Any other grievances?

Smith told Sports Illustrated that the football team lacked both the staff and materials to treat injuries properly. Staffing cuts also have affected the squad on the field:

Players say assistants are stretched too thin and can’t adequately prepare the team. “Other schools have one [coach] for each position,” says sophomore defensive back Dwight Amphy. “On defense, we have only three coaches working three different positions. Our defensive coordinator coaches the defensive line. We have a linebackers’ coach and we have one coach who coaches safeties and corners. And two of those coaches also do special teams.” Positions coaches are so busy that they have little time to meet individually with players. “You don’t get that extra help you need to make yourself better,” Amphy says …
“We knew what we were getting ourselves into when we came to Grambling. We knew we weren’t going to have all this and that, the best stuff. We knew we weren’t going to LSU,” Amphy says. “But it could be better, even just a little bit better. Because it is not like we don’t have the athletes to compete, not like we aren’t trying to the best of our ability.”

Under Hall of Fame coach Eddie Robinson, Grambling was a longtime college football powerhouse. Williams enjoyed success there, too. Essentially, the school’s program is steeped in tradition, much like Penn State University or the University of Alabama. How could this happen?

Money. Or more specifically, a lack thereof. Winning football isn’t cheap — not at the big-time Division I level, and not at the HBCU level. As Sports Illustrated notes, Grambling’s declining gridiron results (the team has won one of its last 19 games) have coincided with an across-the-board drop:

The men’s basketball team was winless last season (0-28); women’s basketball went 9-23. The women’s soccer team amassed a 3-29 recorded over the 2011 and 2012 seasons and is 0-4 this year. The women’s volleyball team is 9-48 over the last three seasons, including 2-11 in 2013. Other programs have similarly struggled; track & field is the one outlier.

As Deadspin notes, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal refused federal stimulus money in 2009 and cut $219 million in state funds for higher education, including $5 million that would have gone to Grambling. Additional state cuts have followed, with Sports Illustrated reporting that overall state funding for Grambling has gone from $31.6 million to $13.8 million in the last half-decade. Add in the Great Recession and a tepid recovery, and the result is a financial crunch that has affected the entire school, including athletics:

Approximately 127 staff members have been laid off since 2008 and furloughs are common. Professors have also been asked to teach an extra class each year for free. Generally, the school has “cut to the bone,” says Leon Sanders, Grambling’s vice president for finance.
Athletics were mostly exempt from the cuts in the first few years of the recession, even as revenue generated by the department declined from around $8 million in 2007-08 to about $6.2 million last year. But that was unsustainable, school officials say. Like the rest of the university, the athletic department had to make sacrifices, and the sports programs are now feeling the pinch that the rest of the school has endured for years.
“Losing that money shows up in everything. It shows up in your recruiting budget, in the hotel you stay in, in the food you get. It means you take a bus to games like last weekend [in Indianapolis],” says James, the athletic director. “We could have spent another $70,000 and taken a charter plane to Indianapolis or we can use that money to help some of the minor sports. Football coaches don’t like that, they say they bring in the money and they want to spend it all, but we have to look at the entire athletic department.”
Some accounting tricks have spared the athletic department even greater pain, at least for now. In past years, the school has moved about $3.4 million out of its operating revenue to help pay for athletics. This year, the school had only $1.8 million to transfer. The difference was made up, in part, by moving $1.2 million in auxiliary funds over to athletics, but that cannot be repeated next year, Sanders says. Unless new monies are found, athletics could see its budget shaved by more than a $1 million or more for the 2014-15 school year.
“We are functioning now in a financial emergency,” Pogue says.

Oh. A financial emergency. Is that all?

Nope. Grambling students don’t want to pay an additional $100 annual fee to help subsidize athletics, which means sports and the student body as a whole aren’t on the same page. Worse still, the school’s athletic department reportedly has been racked by infighting and instability, with Williams feuding with officials and previous athletic director Percy Caldwell resigning in early July after just over a year on the job.

Looming over everything, of course, is a much larger question that merits its own discussion (and probably its own article): in a long-since-desegregated college sports landscape characterized by big money for big-time football schools and scraps for everyone else, what, exactly, is the appropriate place for HBCU athletics? As’s Tim Keown writes:

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.

Speaking of larger questions, is this the first time college athletes have gone on strike and/or threatened to do so?

Believe it or not, no. In 1927, Howard University canceled food, housing and tuition payments to the members of its football team; in response, the team refused to play until the food and housing payments were restored. A decade later, members of the University of Pittsburgh football team declined to participate in the Rose Bowl unless given two weeks of vacation and a pocket money allowance increase to $200 per player; the next season, the team’s sophomore players went on strike because upperclassmen were receiving more money through the school’s football payola plans.

In 1940, the Stanford football team demanded $50 per player to compete in the Rose Bowl. And in his book “Out Of Their League,” former Syracuse football player Dave Meggyesy writes that before the 1961 Liberty Bowl —a made-for-television game played in frigid Philadelphia in mid-December — he and his teammates told coach Ben Schwartzwalder that they wanted wristwatches. Nice watches, like the ones players were given at the Orange and Rose Bowls. Otherwise, the Orangemen refused to play in the game.

Hmmm. College athletes standing up, speaking out and demanding a bigger slice of the economic pie their sweat and labor generates. Sounds like the death of campus sports amateurism, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s worst nightmare.

Besides a court loss in the Ed O’Bannon antitrust case? Pretty much. As I’ve written before:

Things fall apart. The NCAA as we know it cannot hold on indefinitely, any more than Hosni Mubarak could hold on in Egypt. Everyone knows this. Problem is, the system isn’t falling apart fast enough. It’s stubborn and entrenched. Which makes sense. After all, if you were a college sports powerbroker — a conference commissioner, a university president, a megabucks coach — why would you want anything to change? You make the money. You call the shots. In a neat bit of cognitive dissonance — the same trick practiced by economic overlords everywhere, once known as the White Man’s Burden — you probably have convinced yourself that the great and noble cause of having college football and basketball players work for almost free as living, breathing brand marketing brochures is somehow righteous. We’re doing this for education and the love of the game — oh, wow, you want to give me a million bucks to wear this shoe company lapel pin? In short, you have no incentive to change, and every incentive to keep on keepin’ on.
Case in point? [In October 2011], NCAA president Mark Emmert proposed giving college athletes an additional $2,000 cost-of-living stipend — a pittance compared to the billions generated in March Madness television rights, but better than nothing. So what happened? Two months later, 125 member schools asked for an override, suspending the proposal. The upshot was clear: College sports will never become fairer unless they are forced to become fairer.
And the surest way to apply force is through an athlete strike.

We’ve already seen the All Players United movement this season. Now Grambling State. Are college sports on the brink of a mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-anymore player-driven revolution?

Probably not. For one, the Grambling State situation is unique. Players weren’t responding to a somewhat abstract injustice, the financial inequities and denial of basic economic rights that are part and parcel of NCAA amateurism; to the contrary, they were taking a stand against dreadful basic workplace conditions. Would you want to play football in a mold-ridden pair of shoulder pads? Moreover, the Grambling State players likely felt they had less to lose by speaking out than, say, players at Ohio State, many of whom hope to play in the National Football League.

Indeed, three things make a large-scale campus strike unlikely: (a) college athletes are a transient workforce, with roughly 25 percent of them turning over every year; (b) they generally are taught to obey authority, not fight the power; (c) right or wrong, they’re afraid of a fan backlash and professional blackballing. Consider the planned 1995 NCAA men’s basketball tournament sit-down that wasn’t:

… former UMass guard Rigo Nunez told HBO’s “Real Sports” [in 2011] that prior to the opening games of the 1995 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a large number of teams from across the country — including UCLA, Wake Forest and the top-ranked Minutemen — intended to walk to the middle of the court, sit down and let the ball bounce. The players were fed up. They felt exploited. In a subsequent radio interview, Nunez recalled seeing his digital doppelganger in the first “Coach K” college basketball game for the Sega Genesis: His number, his height, his stats, even the Afro he sported at the time. Yet no compensation. Nunez also said he personally spoke with 15 players, some of them future NBA stars. By the time the Atlantic 10 tournament started, he thought the boycott was going to happen, that it would involve “75 percent of the [opening games] not being played. It was going to be huge. Definitely change the way we operate from an NCAA perspective, the whole scope of amateur sports.”
It never did. The athletes got cold feet. The tournament went off without a hitch. “You had a lot of pressure,” Nunez said. “Am I not going to be able to play in the NBA if I do this? Will I be blackballed? All those things weighted heavily on each player.”

Suppose players were able to overcome their fears, unify and strike. What would happen?

They would face tremendous pressure to cave. College sports fans — at least fans of the Jay Paterno these guys get a great deal! Why are they complaining? school — would be irate and unsympathetic. (This doesn’t seem to be the case in the Grambling State situation). Coaches probably would follow suit. NCAA bylaw might even allow schools to cut the scholarships of striking players: Fraudulent Misrepresentation. If a student-athlete is awarded institutional financial aid on the basis of declaring intention to participate in a particular sport by signing a letter of intent, application or tender, action on the part of the grantee not to participate (either by not re- porting for practice or after making only token appearances as determined by the institution) would constitute fraudulent misrepresentation of information on the grantee’s application, letter of intent or financial aid agreement and would permit the institution to cancel or reduce the financial aid.

That said, schools, conferences and the NCAA itself would be under even more pressure to cut a deal with withholding athletes. Unbearable pressure, really. Why? Because Ohio State football players — and the money they generate — can’t be replaced by walk-ons. As I’ve explained:

… big-time college sports can often seem as intimidating and impregnable as the Death Star. But if the “Star Wars” saga taught us anything — beyond the fact that George Lucas is to film directing what Tim Tebow is to football-throwing — it’s that even a planet-destroying space station has a pressure point. The NCAA’s ventilation shaft is money. Television money, to be exact. The lifeblood of the entire dishonest edifice. Networks like Fox, CBS and ESPN are the system’s sugar daddies, the phone call that never can be ignored. (NCAA basketball: because playing games on Wednesday nights is great for the study habits of our student-athletes!)
Now, network executives probably don’t care about the essential wrongness of amateurism, any more than textile plants care about how plantations are run. They just need the final product. Cotton. Games. Programming. They need to fill hours, attract viewers, harvest and sell the resulting eyeballs to their sugar daddies, advertisers and cable providers. No compelling programming? No profits. Take away a big-money, big-ratings property like the March Madness or the BCS bowl games, and the networks are in a bind.
“Remember that [San Francisco] 49ers game this season where they lost electricity for half an hour?” Meggyesy says. “It screwed the whole television schedule up. And when you look at the whole structure of sports, it’s all television-based. Now imagine if you just had all of your offensive linemen pull a sick out in the locker room for half an hour. Boom. Just do it. That’s the ultimate lever of change. It rests with the athletes. These guys don’t realize the power they have.”
Indeed. Imagine if Big East basketball players suddenly refused to play next Monday night. Or if Alabama and LSU had intentionally delayed the start of national title game by two hours. Or if college athletes embarked on a rolling series of strikes, sudden and unpredictable, throwing the sports entertainment calendar into chaos. Imagine network executives taking angry calls from their sponsors and panicked calls from corporate accounting. Imagine those same executives placing stern calls to university athletic directors and presidents.
Fix this. Like, right now.

You might have a point. According to reports, the Grambling State players have agreed to end their strike in exchange for promised facility upgrades. Will they actually get what they want?

Given the school’s overall financial problems, perhaps not. Still, remember Meggyesy’s Syracuse team? The one that threatened not to play in the Liberty Bowl? They got their watches. Striking works. Even when you’re not an official employee.

Read the original article at Sports on Earth