The biggest college football game of the weekend was the one that didn’t happen.
Grambling State University football players boycotted Saturday’s game against Jackson State, forcing a forfeit. They also wrote a lengthy open letter to the school’s administration explaining the reasons for their protest.
The biggest complaint was workplace conditions. We aren't talking about things like inadequate water pressure in the showers or poor cable reception in the weight room. No, this is much more 19th century. Imagine an athletic complex covered in mold and mildew, not to mention uniforms so inadequately washed that players have complained of staph infections. There are minor indignities, as well, including grass that’s up to players’ knees, and long bus rides to road games, including a 17-hour trip to one 750 miles away. (At least the university’s president and athletic director arrived limber and well-rested. They traveled by plane.)
On its face, the Grambling protest was about a very particular situation. The university has said it is in a state of “financial emergency,” and that severe state budget cuts -- 57 percent over the past several years -- have forced it to make difficult choices. The team also appears to be party to a political power struggle at the school between its president, Dr. Frank Pogue, and its recently fired football coach, Doug Williams. According to Sports Illustrated, Williams raised $11,000 to replace the peeling floors in the weight room, but because the money didn't come through the school’s foundation, Pogue refused to allow the new floor to be installed.
The Grambling players weren’t starting a revolution. They just wanted to be able to ferry weights around the weight room without having to worry about tripping on a floorboard, and to put on their uniforms without running the risk of breaking out in lesions.
But this protest isn't simply an act of frustration directed at a crumbling, second-rate football program. Can you imagine such a thing happening five years ago, before the country began awakening to the fundamental injustice driving the myth of amateurism?
The Grambling situation is unique, but then again, so was Johnny Manziel’s and Jadeveon Clowney’s. It's not a stretch to see these isolated incidents as little rivulets feeding into a larger stream of discontent -- or maybe even as the latter-day equivalent of the sporadic civil-rights efforts that broke out before the movement became centralized and organized.
On the most basic level, Grambling players are not all that different from those a few hours away at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In 2009-2010, LSU’s football program generated $69.4 million in revenues -- 14 percent of the school’s gross income. (And that excluded alumni donations, which are often tied to the performance of a school’s football team.) How much of that money went to the actual revenue-generators -- LSU players? None, of course.
Both Grambling and LSU players are being exploited, just in different ways. We now know what Grambling’s players want. What would LSU’s players ask for, if sacrificing their rights and voice weren’t part of the bargain of playing college football? I suspect they’d like to capitalize on what, for many, might well be the four best years of earnings potential of their lives.
The latest news is that Grambling’s players have returned to practice and dropped their boycott. Yet they made it clear in a statement released today that they have no regrets, and that they have not forgotten the situation they’re in or how they arrived here.
In other words, this story isn't over yet. Grambling first rose to prominence as a football school years ago, before the integration of college sports. Its team may now have fallen on hard times, but even if it doesn't win a single game this season -- after last weekend's forfeit, the team is 0-8 -- the 2013 Grambling State Tigers may still make college-football history.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)