Commentary: Football Players at Grambling Take a Bold Stance

Their decision to boycott a rivalry game should shake the foundation of college football.

Posted: 10/21/2013 11:29 AM EDT

Grambling State University football player Naquan Smith speaks at a "State of Emergency" gathering organized by student Kimberly Monroe in Grambling, La. (Photo: AP Photo/The News-Star, Dacia Idom)

No, it’s not an Arab Spring, because comparing sports to the global protests that we’ve seen unfold in the Middle East would be to mix the trivial with the serious. Still, I can’t help thinking that what the football players at Grambling College did this past weekend will shake the NCAA and college football the way the protests in Egypt and Libya shook Mideast politics.

The changes will be seismic.

As a group, the players at Grambling took a defiant stance – despite the consequences. They tried to extract immediate changes from the leadership at this historic Black college, which boasts one of the most storied football programs in all of college.

Somebody at Grambling must have thought these brothers were bluffing. They were not.

When their demands went unmet, they snatched a strategy from the Stokely Carmichael playbook: They refused to back down; they refused to lessen their demands for changes in the football program, which an indifferent administration had allowed to run adrift.

University President Frank Pogue and Athletic Director Aaron James made a token gesture; they fired the sorry interim coach they had installed to replace coach Doug Williams, the former NFL star and Grambling legend whom Pogue and James had fired earlier this season.

The players sought more token gestures, so they walked. They decided not to allow Pogue or James to trot them around like Django chained. They insisted on getting what college players elsewhere get: first-class treatment.

How can anyone blame them for walking?

To be sure, some people will. Those critics will claim the players quit, and nothing is worse in sports than to tag an athlete a “quitter.” Just ask Roberto Duran.

But to attach that label to any athlete at Grambling would be to discount what all protest movements stand for. Black students in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s stood tall, issued demands and got changes, and football players at Grambling proved last week they were poised to do likewise.

And they did.

For decades now, colleges have used the labor of Black athletes and given them little in exchange. The coffers in colleges big and small are filled with dollars, but yet athletes get not a dime in their pockets for the sweat and toil they pour into competing for their alma maters. If these Black athletes aren’t going to be paid, at least let them work under conditions that are tolerable.

Is this protest what will bring about pay for play in college sports?

No one can be sure if Grambling, the school the late Eddie Robinson put on the sports map, will serve as the tipping point for the growing dissatisfaction athletes have for a system that pimps them like whores on the stroll. But what we hope is that the revolt on the Grambling campus has coaches, administrators and NCAA officials wondering to themselves: What school will be next?

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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