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The Bounce Back: Did Grambling just start a fire?

28th October 2013   ·   0 Comments

By David Dennis
Contributing Writer

More than 50 years ago, HBCU students mobilized and fueled a movement that would forever chan­ge America’s landscape. Whe­t­her it was the Woolworth sit-ins in Greens­boro, Freedom Summer trips to Mississippi or organizing Free­dom Rides here in New Orleans, the Civil Rights Movement is indelibly tied to the actions of forward-thinking and brave college students. Most nota­bly HBCU students.

I’ve been told—too often—that my generation lacks that drive. That we’re sitting by idly and refusing to take action. Dear critics, may I present to you the 50-plus students of Grambling University’s football team. The Grambling athletes may have very well started a revolution that will end up being the NCAA’s biggest fear. These young men took a stand, demanded better treatment and threatened to cripple an entire institution if those needs aren’t met. This is movement. This is activism.

The NCAA has enjoyed billions of dollars in income off of the backs of college athletes who aren’t allowed some basic amenities their fellow classmates receive on a daily basis. Earlier this summer, a Sports Illustrated article revealed that Oklahoma State was violating NCAA rules by giving their athletes extra money on the side even though most of the students just needed money for food or to pay bills.

Johnny Manziel, the most recent Heisman Trophy winner, is responsible for roughly $40 million in earnings for his Texas A&M school yet he would lose his eligibility if his coach bought him a hamburger on the way home from practice. When Louisville’s Kevin Ware broke his leg on national television in one of the most gruesome sports injuries I’ve ever seen, the school sold shirts that said “All In For #5” to show support. Ware didn’t receive a dime of the proceeds as it violated NCAA regulations.

As the NCAA rules become increasingly unfair to students and public outrage intensifies, students are making their voices heard more often. However, it’ll be a while before students at bigger schools like Ohio State or LSU cause too much “trouble” for their institutions because those athletes get treated like royalty compared to the football players at Grambling.

The Grambling football team was playing under sub-standard conditions: mold in the gym, staph infections allowed to run rampant without proper treatment and barely wearable jerseys. On top of that, there are reports that the team was required to take exceedingly long bus trips, barely getting enough food on the road, while other schools were allowed to fly to games.

As a result, the Grambling Tigers were asked to put their bodies on the line for a school that didn’t seem to care about their well-being.

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the state of Grambling Football and it starts all the way at the top. The very top. Barack Obama dropped the ball on HBCUs by allowing a restrictive set of loan-eligibility requirements that stifled enrollment and finances. Piyush Jindal’s lack of, well, giving a damn about HBCUs and state-wide higher education in general, resulting in endless budget cuts that are crippling schools like Gram­bling. Frank Pogue is to blame for taking his athletes for granted, never considering that they’d make a stand. He fired coach Doug Williams for not “going through proper channels” in fighting for his team, then refused to install a floor to cover loose panels that Williams had promised the team.

In the end, the Grambling Tigers took a stand that may be the first of many across the country. With one act of defiance and a search for fairness, the football team threatened Grambling’s very existence and inclusion in the SWAC going forward. It’s almost inconceivable that Pogue will be allowed to continue as president. And Grambling lost millions in what would have been a high-ticket game for Jackson State’s homecoming. Now the players comprising the Grambling Tigers hold the power. Imagine if these athletes continue to get mistreated leading up to the Bayou Classic. Imagine the financial that would sweep over Grambling and, by extension, the city of New Orleans if that game were cancelled.

Now imagine if a school like Ohio State followed Grambling’s lead and protested games amidst feelings that they should be getting compensation. Outrage over player compensation in the NCAA is boiling over to the surface and Grambling might have just caused the spark to set the powder keg on fire. We may be in the middle of a new day in college athletics where athletes’ needs are better taken care of. Where student athletes are more than just indentured servants. Where administration and coaches are held accountable for the way they exploit student athletes and fly to games in private jets.

We may be heading to a new day in college athletics where students understand they have the power to change the way they’re treated which has to be the NCAA’s biggest fear. And to think, it all started with a group of students in an HBCU who wanted a little bit of change.

This article originally published in the October 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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