Who’s In Charge Here?

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.

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5 thoughts on “Who’s In Charge Here?

  1. They weren’t heros, they were spoiled brats. Their scholarships should be immediately rescinded, and if the school is struggling as they imply, the sports programs should be immediately cut/closed. People are struggling to put food on their tables, and if these nincompoops don’t realize how well off they really are, then its time for a tough life lesson to come there way.

  2. As more colleges are starting football teams to drive revenue, I cannot think how many are selling their souls to get something they probably should not. What they don’t factor in is the cost of running a team, especially when they (and the fans) have to travel so far. But, to your point, you have an obligation to play as you set a schedule. It might be hard to schedule games next year since people don’t want a no show.

  3. Hugh, I would side with the players on this one because it appears the university has broken its commitments to them, and more than once abused their trust. And NCAA National Letter of Intents do not give players many options for fighting back when a school or coach does so (as with many things wrong with the NCAA, the letters of intent are pretty one-sided, listing all the many things an athlete might do that could lead to the letter of intent being declared null and void, but nary a thing a coach or school could do). http://www.allbuffs.com/showthread.php/57988-National-Letter-of-Intent-The-Document

    So a strike is one of the means of recourse there seems to be. This is actually a growing movement in the NCAA, unrelated to the Grambling issue — a semi-union seems to be taking shape called All Players United (APU), that is working to give athletes more of a voice in this multi-billion-dollar industry. They are, after all, the actual money generators.

    As you have often noted, the whole system is screwed up and skewed so far away from the main mission of higher education (education) and too often leaves athletes in major-revenue sports in the dust, mere pawns to help coaches and administrations become wealthy. Scholarships are nice, but as you have written or said, for many of these players, they often don’t lead to degrees anyway, and they are discardable components who, once they lose their ability to “market” the university are tossed unprepared back into the world. Their college experience is not a normal education experience. Hopefully, this will be another wake-up call — of a different sort than the scandals involving corrupt coaches or programs — that leads to much-needed reform.

    There may be, at some level, a bit of racial disparity at work in the Grambling case, too. But that is just my conjecture at this point: Grambling and Louisiana State University are both state universities with Division I sports. Grambling is historically an all-black university, while LSU is the pride of Louisiana, No. 1 or No. 2 annually in the polls in football. Granted it has a diverse student body, yet it is celebrated much more by white Louisiana and its politicians. I will have to do some data research, but I wonder how much state funding, per-capita of the student body, goes to athletics at Grambling compared to LSU. Grambling has not been full Division I-A in football (I-AA), but there were long stretches of time under Coach Eddie Robinson that it would have been very competitive with LSU. It has become vastly unequal the past 15 years.

    Is it the state’s responsibility to ensure all of its public Division I schools have funding equity? Or does it mean each state school must go down the road of colluding with boosters to outspend one another (which obviously happens in many states)? Neither is a great option, and yet more fodder for reform.

    (This is an insightful story published on Sports Illustrated’s web site Friday, written by George Dohrmann, who won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting while at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for breaking open the Clem Haskins/Gophers academic cheating scandal). http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/college-football/news/20131018/grambling-football/?sct=hp_bf7_a4&eref=sihp

    Good blog Hugh. It brings up many important questions and situations, another reminder that not much is right with big-time college sports (or even mid-level college sports, such as at Grambling). Players, though, have little power to change what is wrong, other than an occasional lawsuit (such as the one in the courts right now, filed by former NCAA athletes who want to stop the NCAA from using, for free and in perpetuity, the athletes’ likenesses for marketing), or an organized protest like this.

    My two cents, anyway.

    You’ve give us much to think about!

    • Thanks for your always insightful comments, Dana. I must confess I am not in sympathy with the athletes in this case. They must know they are being exploited by the universities, but they do so willingly and get a “free ride” while other students face debts in the thousands of dollars after graduation. At some point those athletes must take responsibility for their own decisions. They have an obligation to the university when they accept the “scholarship,” or they should join the ranks of the paying students — assum
      ing they are in college to get an education (I wish!).

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