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Grambling Football Strike: Do College Athletes Have Rights?


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later, if you want to find out what actress Alfre Woodard likes to listen to, to relax or get inspired, we will tell you. But first, we want to talk football. This is the time of year when a number of schools are celebrating homecoming, but there was no homecoming football game at Jackson State University in Mississippi this past weekend. That's because a majority of players on the visiting team, Grambling State University, refused to play.

The players said they wanted to call attention to unhealthy and unsafe conditions in their football facilities, and unhappiness over turmoil in their coaching staff, including the firing of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Doug Williams. Now, the strike is now over. Grambling players say that they will return to practice and to the field this weekend, but their move has sparked headlines around the country. And we wanted to talk more about why, and what it all means. So we've called on Corey Dade. He's a contributing editor to The Root. He also played football at Grambling under legendary coach Eddie Robinson. Also with us once again, Dave Zirin. He writes about the politics of sports for The Nation. He's also a regular in our Barbershop segments, as is Corey Dade. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, great to be here.

COREY DADE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So Corey, for people who are not familiar with the Grambling tradition - you know, Eddie Robinson, for example, recognized now as the coach with the most all-time wins in NCAA Division I football. But, you know, tell us more about the Grambling legacy, and why it's such a big deal.

DADE: Right, for historically black colleges and universities, Grambling State is the Notre Dame, as far as its football tradition. At one point, depending - and still, if you're - depending on how you read the record books, Coach Rob, as he's known, was the winningest college football coach in Division I history. There was a time before integration into college athletics that Grambling put out more college-drafted - more NFL-drafted players from college than any other school, black or white, in certain years. So...

MARTIN: In fact, the first black NFL quarterback to start in an NFL game went to Grambling.

DADE: James Harris. That's correct.

MARTIN: James Harris.

DADE: James Harris. And, of course, everyone knows Doug Williams, who was the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He came from Grambling State; one of our cherished graduates.

MARTIN: So what were the conditions that led to the players to take this step?

DADE: Well, there's a list of them. We're talking just facilities that were under disrepair. We're talking about a weight room where there was mold and mildew, locker rooms that had mold and mildew; improper washing of jerseys and uniforms, which led to staph infections - which, as we know, can be deadly. The floor in the weight room was in disrepair. It was an accident waiting to happen, in the locker room. And I will say, from my time being there - you know, at Grambling - as storied as the program is, you know, it has always been challenged with finances. It has always been challenged with providing, you know, adequate accommodations.

And, you know, in this season, it cut costs.The university actually stopped sending their players on trips to games by plane. So they're taking 17-hour bus rides one way, to play a game over the weekend; and coming back another 17 hours. No wonder they're winless this year.

MARTIN: Dave, talk a little bit more about who you - you've written about this. Talk a little bit more about why you think this story is important beyond just this particular institution. And I do - I would like to ask you to pick up on a little bit of the question of budget cuts because some people might say, you know, football programs - this is one of the reasons people criticize football programs; that they say they suck up enormous resources. So how is it possible that a D-I program doesn't have the facilities it needs?

ZIRIN: This is a huge story for several different reasons, a story that extends well beyond the sports page. One reason is that what it's done is, it's amplified for the country - because, as you've said, this has been a national, Sports Illustrated-style story - is that it has amplified the very difficult position that historically black colleges and universities are in right now. What's happening in the locker room at Grambling State reflects what's happening the classroom, what's happening in the quad, what's happening in the student center. And this is happening at all HBCUs. And there's a reason for that. It's estimated that since 2009, under the Obama administration's education department, roughly $300 million has been cut from historically black colleges and universities.

And on top of that, Gov. Bobby Jindal, from the state of Louisiana, he refused stimulus funds from the Obama administration while also cutting over $200 million in funds from higher education, in the state of Louisiana. Now what has that meant at Grambling? It's meant $5 million that would have been in the budget, not in the budget in 2009. One million dollars last year that would've been in the budget, not in the budget.

And when you're talking about players doing things like rationing among themselves weightlifting supplements to make sure that the players who lift the most get supplements afterwards so their bodies can be replenished because there's not enough to go around, then each of those dollars actually counts for something. So what you're talking about is a reflection in the athletic department of what's happening on the campus.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the player boycott by the football team at Grambling State University, in Louisiana. The players at the storied program - a majority of them refused to play at a homecoming game last weekend, Jackson State University. It sparked national attention. So Corey, I also want to mention that you're national secretary of the National Association of Black Journalists. And I understand that your organization got involved when the student paper at Grambling tried to cover the issue. Could you tell us about that side of the story?

DADE: Yeah, the student paper - "The Gramblinite," which I actually wrote for when I was in college there - two of the staffers there were disciplined by the university for their reporting - principally, posting photos of the conditions, the deplorable conditions of the athletic facilities, on Twitter. And one was fired; one was suspended. Now, those measures have since been reversed over the past day or so. But the National Association of Black Journalists was asked to weigh in, and we did. We condemned that decision for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is: This amounts to censorship. If we are supposed to be training our student journalists to be free and independent of the power structure that they cover, then to censor them for their coverage is just unethical.

MARTIN: Are the football players being punished for their stance?

DADE: No, and that's an interesting point. So the student - the student journalists are punished for their coverage. But the football players - the university has been very clear in saying, you know, this is sort of a family matter, and we're not going to - we respect their points of view. We may disagree about the extent of the circumstances, but they're not going to be disciplined at all for their boycott.

MARTIN: I understand that a local businessman has also stepped in, saying that he is going to help to see that these facilities get upgraded. But Dave, again, I want to ask you about what you think the larger...

ZIRIN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...meaning of this story might be.

ZIRIN: Well, there's another reason why this story has become a national sensation because right now, as we speak, there is a lightning rod issue in college sports, which is about: How many rights do these college athletes actually have? And there have been players who've been writing the phrase "APU" on their uniforms, at some of the biggest schools in the country. APU stands for All Players United. And players are organized - it's so different from Grambling State, though, because these are players at the big-money schools, who see millions of dollars flowing into their program. They see their coaches making millions of dollars.

And they're asking questions like, why don't I have workers' compensation? Why don't I get full health benefits? Why isn't my education guaranteed for four years? Why is my scholarship renewed on an annual basis? Where is the money going? Which is very different from Grambling, which is asking the question, where is the money? - period. You know, why is my weight room in disrepair? Why is my locker room an accident waiting to happen?

But because these things dovetail together, even though Grambling State is distinct from the APU movement, it turned it into the kind of story where, for example, on ESPN, they were doing round-the-clock updates about what was happening on Grambling 'cause it touches a much more sensitive nerve. If, in politics, timing is everything, the timing of the Grambling State players could not have been better.

MARTIN: Corey, I have to ask you - another highly regarded historically black college or university, Spelman College, recently made news in a different way. This is an historically black college for women.

DADE: Right.

MARTIN: It recently made news in a different way, in their university president decided to terminate all intercollegiate sports and convert the entire athletic budget to fitness for everybody - that she hoped everybody would participate in - including faculty and staff. And her argument was, we spend a huge amount of money on a very small number of students and that, you know - so clearly, Spelman is not known for its producing kind of athletic stars, as is Grambling; as we mentioned, you know, a number of, you know, hundreds of pro-football players have come out of Grambling. But is there any talk about the fact that perhaps the university just cannot afford the program anymore?

DADE: Not at all. For - just not at all. For Grambling, football is its image. Next to the band, the marching band, football is what has given Grambling a national image, a national brand. Just to give you an idea of how powerful that brand is, Eddie Robinson, because of his winning tradition, because of the brand at Grambling, was able to take his school to other parts of the country, long outside of the South, outside of Louisiana, and have these major games in major NFL arenas - stadiums - with other - against other HBCUs. And Grambling was the draw nationwide. It becomes a big revenue generator for the opposing school, and for Grambling. So the idea that this is somehow going to necessitate talks about cutting the program - not going to happen.

MARTIN: What have you been hearing from - 'cause I know that you're in touch with former players - like yourself - as well as current players. And, you know, what are they saying about this? How do they feel about the coverage that this issue is receiving?

DADE: You know, I think many of them - well, first of all, a lot of us are embarrassed. A lot of us are embarrassed about it because it's just - it's a black mark. It's a stain on the heritage of what it's like to play for Grambling. But beyond that, several of the players are actually thankful that this is getting air because today's point - part of this is about the empowerment of the student athlete.

Many players at Grambling have long labored under lack of resources, subpar facilities; and you know, they accept it as a trade-off for playing at Grambling, at a Division I football program. But none of us liked those conditions. So the fact that it's gotten so bad and the fact that they stand up, I can't find a former teammate of mine who's not behind them.

MARTIN: Are you surprised that they did? I mean...

DADE: I am surprised that they did, in part because when you come to Grambling, you do - it's like going to Notre Dame. You buy into the mystique. You buy into sort of the hierarchy of what it means to be at Grambling. And so, you know, to actually step outside of the university and criticize it, or criticize the football program, usually does not happen at Grambling.

MARTIN: I confess, I've seen the facilities at Notre Dame, and they are very different from the ones at Grambling.

DADE: Yeah.

MARTIN: A final thought from you, Dave Zirin, about where you think this goes. I mean, in recent years, there's been a lot of talk about improving conditions for players or just rethinking our whole relationship with these so-called student athletes. I mean, the whole question about whether student athletes should be paid, whether they should have course credit, things of that sort. Those conversations kind of bubble up, but nothing ever seems to happen. I mean, do you see a tipping point in some ways...


MARTIN: ...around this issue?

ZIRIN: Well, I think we've passed the tipping point. I think we're at the point where there are open discussions in the NCAA offices, where they're saying to each other: We need to change, or we will die. We will not exist. And we will, in the future of college athletes and revenue-producing sports, will be treated like campus employees instead of like student athletes. And so they are discussing how to change themselves to meet the 21st century.

And the 21st century is a place where college football programs sign $6 billion contracts with major networks, where coaches make, literally, 100 times what they made 30 years ago. And you cannot have a status quo, in terms of the position of the athletes and their rights, like it was in the past because the financial situation is so dramatically different.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin is a regular in our Barbershop roundtable. He's sports editor for The Nation. That's a progressive magazine. Corey Dade is contributing editor for The Root. He's also secretary of the National Association of Black Journalists. And an alumnus of - and played some football at - Grambling State University in Louisiana. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ZIRIN: Thank you.

DADE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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