Grambling Players Right To Boycott

Congratulations to the Grambling State University football team. While others may disagree, I think Eddie Robinson would be proud.

Two weeks ago, the players unanimously voted to boycott practice and to not play a game in protest over the firing of former coach Doug Williams. They also are upset that practice and training conditions are unquestionably deplorable, if not dangerous.

Robinson’s name has been brought up a lot recently, most often in suggestion that the great coach is no longer resting in peace because the program he once nurtured has fallen so low. The supposedly disrespectful action taken by the players has also been blamed for his current state of discomfort.

Robinson passed away in 2007 as the winningest coach in college football history and one of the most respected men in the profession. He coached both sides of the ball, mowed the grass, taped knees, made sandwiches for road trips that took his team through towns that wouldn’t serve black customers and wrote game stories for area newspapers.

I’ve never met Robinson nor can I claim knowledge about how he would handle the current situation at Grambling. What I can say for certain is that Robinson’s most important role was building young men of character who used their education to better themselves and their communities. The current Tigers are doing just that. They also have brought attention to a larger issue that most would rather not discuss.

Because of budget cuts, players had to buy their own sports drinks and take 1,500-mile bus trips with no hotel stays. They also had to use moldy equipment that increased the risk of staph infections.

These are serious concerns, and the problems aren’t theirs alone.

Building maintenance across campus is a mess, with many areas simply closed off. There is a lack of teachers, and mold has been found in the building housing the school’s newspaper.

Grambling’s problems aren’t hard to understand. In 2009, Louisiana cut $219 million from state higher education funding. An additional $50 million was removed in January, resulting in Grambling losing half its funding over an eight-year period. State cuts in addition to lowering federal commitments have hit universities hard, especially historically black colleges and other small schools that lack the economic base to get through lean times.

University leaders and coaches are well aware this is happening. They just don’t like athletes talking about it.

One month ago, a small number of players – 28, to be exact – got everyone’s attention when they wrote APU on their wrist tape.

All Players United is an effort by National Collegiate Players Association members to raise support for college athletes who joined the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA and video game makers over the use of player likenesses. Players have for years written biblical references and telephone area codes on their eye black without a mention of controversy.

NCPA’s effort was different. It recognizes the power held by collegiate athletes and challenges the system. That pissed people off.

Georgia Tech had six players take part in the APU effort. Coach Paul Johnson didn’t like it, telling AP the players should have discussed the idea with the team and coaches and let the group decide.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald reacted the same way after quarterback Kain Colter took freedom of speech to mean he was actually free to speak. Outwardly, Fitzgerald talked about the issue being a teaching moment for players and coaches.

Later he got boorish. While Colter was talking to Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein, saying he didn’t feel the need to ask for permission, Fitzgerald suddenly interrupted:

“I’m speaking in three minutes. That means Kain is done in three minutes. I couldn’t care less if you want to talk to me or not, but you have three minutes.”

It’s no surprise the player didn’t consult Fitzgerald.

” … in my perspective, it’s tough to ask permission to do something because it could get shot down.

And the whole APU thing goes against having to ask permission to voice our opinions.”

Killing the messenger has become a campus-wide sport.

David Lankster Sr., the online editor for The Gramblinite, Grambling’s student newspaper, was fired after he retweeted images of moldy facilities on campus and tweeted concerns of unidentified football players and students on the Gramblinite‘s Twitter account. The paper’s opinion page editor Kimberly Monroe was suspended for helping organize a student rally over the conditions at the school.

Lankster’s termination later was reversed by the administration, and Monroe’s suspension was lifted. Lankster says he won’t return to the paper.

After meeting with Williams, Grambling players voted to return to practice. Though the controversy has ended, the movement they helped to create will continue. That’s good. College is about education, and no doubt the Grambling players and APU supporters have learned one critical lesson: Standing up for oneself comes with a price.

Good luck.