Victory

11.09.13

A History of Grambling University Football: The First Shot in Player Liberation

They just had to walk off the field. When Grambling football players boycotted a practice and then a game, they proved something that the NCAA feared: without them, there is no game.

It seemed like old times at Grambling State University. The Tigers stormed to a thrilling 47-40 win over longtime rival Mississippi Valley State, led by a quarterback named Williams—first name Jonathan—who passed and ran for seven touchdowns, leading the Tigers to victory just like another Williams—Doug, a future NFL star—did back in the 1970s. Once again, a near-capacity crowd filled Eddie Robinson Stadium, and, just like decades ago, the local and national press corps roamed the campus in droves.

It was just like old times. Too old.

The win last Saturday was Grambling’s first this season—in fact, they were on an 18-game losing streak. And yes, it was great to have the national press back. There hadn’t been so much attention to the football program since Coach Eddie Robinson was closing in on Bear Bryant’s record for victories back in the mid-1980s. But that day the press was there to cover more than football.

Two weeks ago the Grambling football team got more publicity than it has in nearly thirty years by not playing a game. The players boycotted practice and then a game with Jackson State, protesting the poor conditions of the team’s equipment, facilities, and transportation, including bus rides to road games that took nearly 20 hours.

No one could remember the last time a college football team had actually boycotted a game.  At the beginning of last week, the Monday after the forfeit, defensive back Naquan Smith, along with his teammates, met in front of the Eddie Robinson Museum and announced that, their point having been made, the players would return to practice.  They had been advised, they said, to do so by their quarterback’s father, Doug Williams, who had been fired as head coach earlier in the season after the Tigers lost their first two games. 

The Grambling players boycott caught the sports press so much by surprise and touched on so many different issues that no one is entirely sure of its significance. Grambling president Frank Pogue told the Louisiana System [school] board that “It’s a rarity for any athletic team to come together to abandon their commitment to an institution by walking off the field. It’s a very unique experience. But we’re using this as an opportunity of learning, a teachable moment.”

So what have they—what have we—learned from this? First, there is at anger directed at the administration by the football team and boosters at the firing of the popular Williams. 

Second, there are numerous internecine battles going on between alumni and administration over the way the football program has been managed. Most of this boils down to the boosters wanting to donate money, but on the provision that it be used to better the football facilities, which are substandard and in poor repair. In some cases, conditions such as mold in the weight room may be detrimental to the players’ health. From this last standpoint, it seems like a classic student vs. administration clash of the 1960s and 1970s.

Football at Grambling and other historically black colleges is suffering.

None of these problems in and of themselves explain what is happening at Grambling. Since 2008, Grambling has been subject to severe budget cuts. The number of academic degree programs was slashed from 67 to 47, and more than 120 employees have been laid off. It isn’t just the football facilities that have suffered: between $20-$25 million dollars of maintenance for dormitories, the school library and classrooms has been deferred.

Neither contributions from alumni nor tuition hikes have made up for the loss of funding that came about when Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal rejected federal stimulus money offered by the Obama administration. Thirty-one other states accepted the money; Louisiana was the first to turn it down. In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, Grambling received just over $31 million in aid. Over this past academic year, the amount has been cut to just under $14 million.

That’s the crux of the matter, and the root cause of most of Grambling’s problems. And not just Grambling but all of what is known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, especially in the South.  

***

“The late great Eddie Robinson, who built this program from near scratch,” wrote Gene Wojciechowski on ESPN.com, “wouldn’t recognize it.” Actually, the sad fact is that he would recognize it: the program looks all too much like it did when Robinson first came to Grambling more than 70 years ago. 

When Robinson, the son of a cotton sharecropper, started at the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute in 1941 he was 22, and the school didn’t have the money to furnish him a house. He lived with Dr. Ralph Jones, the school’s second president; the third president, Dr. Joseph Johnson, was recruited by Robinson as a basketball player. The college’s staff was so short-handed that Robinson had to enlist the night watchman to help him with the team’s equipment. (He paid him in football tickets.)

When I spoke to Coach Robinson in the summer of 1985, he even recalled the man’s name: “Yes, sir. Jessie Applewhite was his name. There were times I couldn’t have gotten by without him. I had a lot to do back then. I coached the baseball team and both the boys and girls basketball teams. Also did a lot of the line work, putting chalk down on the field and the like.” He was being modest—Grambling old-timers remember that he also taught physical education, washed uniforms, and, for the first few years, drove the team bus.  

And if that job description wasn’t big enough, he also wrote the football team’s press release. And because there wasn’t a regular sportswriter covering the football games for the local paper, he did that until someone could be found to fill the post. He confessed to me that the lead from one of his stories about a Grambling victory was “borrowed.”“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky…”

No other coach in college football—not Bear Bryant at Alabama, not Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, not Joe Paterno at Penn State, not even Knute Rocke at Notre Dame—figured so prominently in his school’s history as Eddie Robinson. Through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, tiny Grambling—enrollment never exceeding 5000—sent nearly as many players into the National Football League as Southern Cal, Notre Dame and Alabama. Some of them, such as Charlie Joiner, who caught 750 passes in 11 NFL season, and Willie Davis, who earned five championship rings playing defensive end on Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, were among the best in the game. James Harris, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969, became the first black quarterback in the NFL. Another of Grambling’s great QBs, Doug Williams, became the first black passer to win a Super Bowl when he led the Washington Redskins to a 42-10 rout of John Elway and the Denver Broncos in 1988.

And yet, in one of the most shameful snubs in American sports, Robinson was never offered a head coaching position in the NFL. Carol Rosenbloom, owner of the Los Angeles Rams, flew him to the West Coast in 1977 for discussions, but nothing came of them.  (Robinson told me that he was asked if he’d be interested in the job of assistant head coach, but said no.) By the 1980s, Robinson was about as famous as a coach could be whose team seldom appeared on national television. In 1981, Harry Belafonte played him in a TV movie, Grambling’s White Tiger, the story of Jim Gregory, the school’s first white quarterback, and by 1985 the sports media had caught on to the fact that Robinson would soon break Bear Bryant’s record of 323 career victories. (H e has since been supplanted in the record book by John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Minnesota, which plays at a lower division than Grambling.)

However, the lingering national adulation for Robinson disguised the fact that football at Grambling and other historically black colleges is suffering. Everyone knows that football in the South is a vital element in bringing the community together. The role football played in giving a center to black society in the South after World War II is almost incalculable.  But it did much more than that:  football also paid for all other sports on campus for both men and women. Football also paid for a great many other things, including libraries. When the money from football declined, so did libraries.

For decades, Grambling and other HBCUs were a haven for thousands of black athletes who were denied admission to major colleges, and not just in the South. But by the early 1970s, all the Southeastern Conference schools had integrated, and Grambling and other small predominantly black colleges were no longer attractive to blue chip athletes. Then, in the early 1980s, a Supreme Court decision broke the NCAA’s monopoly on televised college football, allowing the bigger schools to get more of their games on local and national TV.

The affect was devastating for Grambling. Robinson knew this back in 1985, when he told me, “I hate to sound negative, but the truth is I can’t see much good coming out of it [the Supreme Court decision] for small schools. It’s tough enough now for us to compete with colleges that have 30 to 40,000 students. A TV appearance might bring us as much as $350,000, and that’s money we simply can’t do without if we’re going to continue at the level to which our fans and alumni have become accustomed to.

“We finance a lot of other sports with that money, and so do a lot of other schools our size. Obviously we can’t compete for national attention with Alabama, Notre Dame, and Penn State unless the NCAA can regroup and get all the major colleges to agree on a plan that’s equitable for everyone, I’m afraid it’s going to be a drastic case of the rich getting very much richer.”  And so the hard times for football at Grambling don’t just reflect the economic woes of small black colleges but the country as a whole.

But whatever happens to the Grambling football program for the rest of this season, the 2013 Tigers have made their impact on American sports history. This has been the year in which college athletes have finally shown an awareness that they are something more than chattel whose purpose is to produce millions for the college athletic departments, television networks, and even video game companies.

One week ago, a Federal court judge denied an NCAA motion to dismiss a challenge to their sovereignty over college players in what is called the Ed O’Bannon antitrust case—named for the UCLA basketball star who initiated the suit.  The Collegiate Licensing Company, which used O’Bannon’s and other players’ images in video games through an agreement with the NCAA without compensation to the players,  recently agreed to settle with O’Bannon and 19 other plaintiffs for $40 million.

If Judge Claudia Wilken of the United States District Court for the District of Northern California now decides to certify the players’ claim as a class action suit, thousands of former college football and basketball players could sue for damages in the billions.

But O’Bannon and the other plaintiffs in the case are former players. The Grambling football boycott is the first action in which student athletes, acting of their own volition, have called a halt to a college game.  The lesson cannot fail to be lost on every college athlete in the country that they—not politicians, not college administrations, and not even the NCAA—are the game.