You may have heard about the refusal of the football team at Grambling University recently to board a bus to play a football game at nearby Jackson State — the latter’s Homecoming, as it happens. The game was cancelled, though one suspects that the revelry at Jackson State was not put on hold! In any event, the situation raises some interesting questions about our educational priorities and about the willingness of young people, in this case, to accept their responsibilities. After all, these players are on football “scholarships” and made some sort of commitment to the university when they agreed to play football there.
A recent news story tells us, in part, the cause of the players’ discontent: “The players are unhappy with [university President] Pogue, the university’s facilities, transportation and the dismissal of coach Doug Williams, a Grambling alum and former Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Washington Redskins.” In recent weeks the players were required to travel by bus to a game 900 miles away, which is a lot to ask of pampered athletes. But the University has fallen on hard financial times and has had to make deep cuts in a number of programs. One suspects that air travel in this case is out of the question. One also suspects that this is what the players were promised and what they have come to expect. At any rate, they refused to play a game that would have involved another bus ride, this time a comparatively brief one, and this has caused ripples at the university and around the country. ESPN loves this stuff! The players have called for the firing of President Pogue who commented that the players should be aware of their responsibilities to the university and aware also of the fact that they are at Grambling to get a “first class education.” Sure. Former Grambling coach Doug Williams recently tweeted “”I am proud of them boys. They took a stand.” So much for the myth of a “first class education” in the case of at least one former Grambling alum. On the other hand, the players claim their uniforms are not cleaned properly and this has brought on a number of of staph infections. If true, this is a serious charge indeed. Time will tell.
The larger question here is not who is right and who is wrong on this particular issue, but whether a struggling university should even try to fund a football team in the first place. Indeed, a number of times I have raised the question whether the tail wags the dog in college athletics at the Division I NCAA level. Who’s in charge? This question keeps coming up. Does the athletics department at those schools rule the roost? In this case do the athletes at Grambling rule the roost? One would like to think that President Pogue is right on: education ought to be the first priority and the athletics department in general and the football program in particular should suck hind tit — if they are allowed any nourishment at all. But that is a pipe dream because there are tons of money involved in large, successful football programs and the universities are willing to do anything (I repeat, anything) necessary to field a successful football team. Witness the Oklahoma State scandal recently, and, of course, Penn State and Ohio State. And the list goes on.
So while we reflect on whether a group of spoiled athletes who may have a legitimate gripe and may or may not have been promised the stars when they were recruited to Grambling ought to be heroes, as Williams suggests, because “they took a stand,” one must ask whether their stand was worth taking and whether or not these young men were standing on principle or whether they were simply put out because they were not treated royally as they have been led to expect. And this may be the root cause of the entire issue: in this age of entitlement the young have been led to expect royal treatment and when they don’t receive it they feel they have legitimate grounds to protest in whatever way seems appropriate — even if it involves ignoring the promises they made and their obligations to a university that is, after all, paying for their education.