Will More College Football Teams Rebel?

Nov 13, 2013
Originally published on November 8, 2013 3:27 pm

The football players at Grambling State staged a boycott last month that forced the school to forfeit one of its games.

Among the issues the players complained about were poor facilities and long bus trips to games. The school pledged to work on those issues.

“There have been plenty of unhappy college athletes before,” John Bacon, a sportswriter who has written about college football told Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “But no one has ever done this before … And this is a stunning fact, this is a great precedent. This could be the Rosa Parks of college football.”

Bacon says that even though Grambling State is not a big player in the world of college football, the precedent the team has set is incredibly powerful: It lets them see the power that teams can wield over the schools that profit from their success.

“If you’re playing for a national title and you’re playing with an ESPN contract or a CBS contract, there is big money afoot,” Bacon said. “And that’s where the guys really have the power.”


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In college football tomorrow, Louisiana's Grambling State Tigers will play the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. Now, Grambling State has been in the news before. Earlier this season, the players on the football team there staged a boycott. That's right. They went on strike. And maybe you would too if you had to deal with the conditions such as they did, including a locker room so unclean players were getting staph infections.

The strike forced the university to cancel a game against Jackson State in Mississippi last month. But after conversations with the university, players at the historically black school did return, and the season resumed. Here's Grambling State defensive back Naquan Smith.

NAQUAN SMITH: That's why the athletic program at Grambling State University, the football team took a stance on what we thought was a right. Although (unintelligible) season, we have not forgotten the situation.

CHAKRABARTI: John Bacon is the author of "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football." He's our go-to guy for the gridiron game, and he just happens to be in Boston today and joins us in the studio. John, great to see you in person. Welcome.

JOHN BACON: Great to see you also. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: All right. So I mentioned the terrible conditions in the locker room. But tell us a little bit more about why the football players at Grambling State staged what seems to be an unprecedented boycott.

BACON: I think it is - in recent memory, certainly. They're upset about a lot of things. You mentioned the locker room, of course, where they're getting staph infections from the weight room floor. The previous coach, Doug Williams, who was the Super Bowl MVP in 1988 as a quarterback for the Washington Redskins, he was our coach. He's a Grambling alum, and he's beloved by the players. The team was not very good. They've now lost eight straight games - 12 straight games, sorry. So they had a lot of problems building up. But when they fired Williams a month before this game and did not tell them why, did not meet with them as the AD or the president, they started feeling disrespected. They started feeling neglected, basically. So you pile all that onto the weight room mess, literally in this case, and they finally said enough.

Now, what's unusual about this, there've been plenty of unhappy college athletes before, Lord knows, in a given week. No one has ever done this before, and that is pull a boycott, basically refused to play. And that's when you realize, of course - and this is a stunning fact, this is a great precedent, this could Rosa Parks of college football.

CHAKRABARTI: Of college football.

BACON: A very minor incident that shows a very major power play they have, which is they have none of the power, the athletes do, until all of a sudden they sit down. Then you realize they have all the power.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. Well, we're going to talk about more about that in just a moment because there's a lot going on there, given the big money and the deep fandom in college football. And actually because of that, you can imagine, there's been a huge amount of debate in the world of college football about what the Grambling State players did. On ESPN, former college football coach Lou Holtz said what they did essentially was wrong.


LOU HOLTZ: Coaches coach. Players player. Administrators administrate. Reporters reporter and there can't be an overlap. I'm not saying the players don't have a grievance. But you do not do it by canceling or forfeiting a game. Let's remember this. This was Jackson State's homecoming. This is going to cost them financially as well.

CHAKRABARTI: And John, it could've cost them, you know, up to, you know, several million dollars because homecoming is a big event. But let me just ask you. Do you think what the players did was wrong?

BACON: That is a tough question, and I don't know if I've got an automatic answer. I do know I disagree with Lou Holtz, not for the first or a last time. Look. He's a multimillion-dollar coach. Of course he believes that they should keep on playing because otherwise the whole gig is up, basically. How I feel about it, there might've been other ways to handle this. But what other recourse do they really have? They've tried to reach out. They tried to talk to the AD. They tried to talk to the president. At some point the only power they really have is sitting down.

CHAKRABARTI: Is sitting down. OK. So how did the school react? What did they do to get those players back on the field?

BACON: They, I think, were rather contrite in the face of this. There was not at all any blowback from the president, Pogue, in this case Frank Pogue - or the AD. I think they probably realized that, guess what, these guys do have all the power. They basically got on bended knee and welcomed them back and said there'd be no retribution, no consequences for their stance. So they finally did meet with the players when they didn't after they fired their coach and tried to make peace. And they did.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So you mentioned Grambling State president Frank Pogue. We've got a little bit of tape from here, and he says that he doesn't think the boycott was great from Grambling State as a university. And this is what he said after the boycott ended.

FRANK POGUE: My concern right now is that we will move forward together. Students have expressed themselves, their opinions. We support a right of any student to express their opinions, to make their feelings known.

CHAKRABARTI: All right. So that's Grambling State president Frank Pogue. John, you said that this is unprecedented, that a college football team has never stepped off the field and said we are on strike. So what do you think other schools, other athletic directors and teams across the country are thinking as they watch that?

BACON: Grambling State right now is not a national power. Certainly they've lost 18 of 19 games. They used to be a real first-rate program under Eddie Robinson. So this does not get a lot of attention as far as that goes. If Texas did this, if Stanford, if Oregon, if one of these hotshot teams did this, it might be a different story. But the precedent itself is what's getting all the attention. And the reason that it is, is the players around the country, and there are thousands, are looking up and realizing, wow, I guess we do have some power. And the people watching this who are wearing the suits also realize, wow, they have a lot of power.

And this goes back to Taylor Branch's great story for Atlantic Monthly two years ago, a seminal piece, where he quoted the UNC chancellor, a guy named William Friday, who was part of the NCAA committee for March Madness, who said that he had caught wind a few years earlier, a top 10 basketball team that had pledged to their teammates that if they got to the final four, after being announced, they would sit down and not play. And they did not get to the final four so we'll never know if they would've done it or not. But that alone has got to get your attention, that, again, CBS does not make the money they're making off this - one billion dollars in ad revenue alone per March Madness last year. Incredible. That's three weekends, man. That's good money if you can get it.


BACON: That's all dependent on what? These guys playing. If they sit down, I don't think Gillette is going to pay you, you know, $1 billion for that.

CHAKRABARTI: So money is at the bottom of all of this.

BACON: Imagine that.

CHAKRABARTI: The root of all evils, as it's been known to be called. I mean but this has got to be a major problem for smaller schools, especially. I mean as you mentioned multiple times, the players don't get paid.

BACON: Not as such, right.

CHAKRABARTI: And they don't have the, you know, the $50 million athletic facilities that some of the top tier schools have. They basically have very little leverage. So, I mean, do you see this getting worse in terms of tensions between players and administration and maybe even how fans feel as smaller schools try to keep sports going?

BACON: You're right about the small schools. Look, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, they're always going to be able to fund their football teams. Alabama included, of course. But outside of that top 30 or 40, they're all losing money. And at that point - and division two and three are all losing money - they're not trying to get money, of course. So they've got to be paying attention to this.

Now, a division two school, you don't want to play - OK, then we'll get somebody else because it's not that big a deal. But if you're playing for a national title and you're playing with an ESPN contract or a CBS contract, there's big money afoot. And that's where the guys really have the power. It's the big name athletes who've got the power here.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So what are some of the cracks that are sort of exposed through this Grambling State story? I mean, how do fans feel or how do college football fans in general feel about where the money is going?

BACON: They have - I can say this as a man born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I didn't know that there's a choice not to be a Michigan fan until I was about 13 or 14.

CHAKRABARTI: Still doesn't really feel like a choice either.

BACON: Well, it's like speaking English. I mean, you're speaking it before you know that you are, of course, so for people in these kind of towns. So our love college football and basketball tends to be irrational, and that's where they've got us. Only recently are people starting to question as the players are how the whole equation works. You can see it at Penn State, by the way.

They packed up plays for decades. They went from 40,000 seats when Paterno first got there to 108,000 seats now. That's, obviously, almost three times more. They packed that nonstop until 2010. And the reason for that was not Sandusky, who would not be arrested for - until November of 2011. It was not firing Paterno. That, again, did not happen until later. It was cranking up the seat licenses too high.

CHAKRABARTI: Too high. So money playing a role there.

BACON: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Even amongst the most diehard of college football fans.

BACON: Penn State fans might be the most diehard. They drive four hours for those games. They are jumping ship (unintelligible) you know, the canaries in the coal mine, those are the coal miners.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Well, John Bacon, his latest book is "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football," a fight that seems to be very much ongoing.

BACON: Yes, it is.

CHAKRABARTI: John Bacon, thank you so much for coming in.

BACON: Meghna, it was a pleasure.


John, I think you forgot an important point. Go (unintelligible).



BACON: Did I miss that, Jeremy?

HOBSON: You did. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. We will be back on Monday. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.