The most significant football game over the weekend was not televised. It did not include NFL players or NFL-bound players. It didn't have any memorable highlights. In fact, the game was not even played.
The Grambling State football team, fed up with the condition of its facilities and overnight trips to faraway places, decided not to show up for the bus to Saturday's game against Jackson State. The school had no choice but to forfeit its game in Jackson, Miss., and by Monday, Grambling had a new interim head coach and the promise of upgraded facilities. The players had lost a game but won something crucial for themselves and those who will follow them.
It's a shame Jackson State didn't get to play its scheduled game, but Grambling's protest is one of the most meaningful acts of college teamwork in recent memory. The balance of power in college football has swung way too far in favor of coaches and administrators, and this moment shows the players themselves have sway too. The sport needs them more than they need it.
"It's a very good thing," says Stuart Paynter, a lawyer representing the players in the publicity side of the Ed O'Bannon case. "You want both sides to have equal bargaining power. It's not like the schools don't act together, but when the students act together, people flip out."
This situation is far removed from the national debate about pay-for-play. This wasn't about whether Johnny Manziel can take money for autographs or Teddy Bridgewater should get a cut of Louisville jerseys with his number on them. This is more elemental and more important: players at Grambling were not represented in health and safety matters that directly involved them. They were being ignored.
"It's not about having the bells and whistles at these programs," says Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennyslvania and an expert in historically black colleges and universities like Grambling. "Some of these things are health hazards."
When MRSA breaks out in the Tampa Bay Bucs' facility, a union representative visits the team and files a grievance. When the Grambling weight room is dirty and in disrepair, the players have no recourse. They have no recourse when they don't get meals, and they have no recourse when they have to sit on buses overnight while opponents take planes. This is the case all over the country, not just at a few under-resourced schools. If a coach is abusive, what can a player or team do? Unless it has video or photographic evidence, as was the case in the Mike Rice scandal at Rutgers, it's a student's word against the all-powerful coach, who has the authority to revoke a scholarship. If three players on the Grambling team complained about conditions, and only those three players complained, it's likely those three players would either be shunned or benched. It took the entire team to force the issue.
Paying players would not help this problem. In fact, it would likely make it worse. Some would see a stipend as justification for tamping down athletes' concerns. There were many across the country who heard about the Grambling situation and felt the players should lose their scholarships for such a betrayal. The scholarship, in some peoples' eyes, means the sacrifice of a voice. Paying student-athletes would only lessen whatever patience coaches and fans have for even the most reasonable complaints.
A better solution is a players' union, or some intermediary between players and administration. That way a group of student-athletes can voice concerns without having to resort to the nuclear option of sitting out a bus ride and forfeiting a game. The union representative on each campus could go directly to the administration without fear of reprisal from an angry coach. That provides not only a blanket of protection for players, but also some safety for the coach: he or she could know what's troubling a team before tensions boil over and ruin an entire season. And an athletic director would be held accountable in a needed way; he couldn't simply plead ignorance and profess he would have done something if only it had been made clear to him what was wrong. Compliance officers are supposed to be a watchdog for an athletic department, but far too often they represent the athletic department above the best interests of the students. And even if they do represent the students, it's hard for athletes to truly believe that. Would you trust an official who sits a few doors down from the A.D.?
At Grambling, the students' voices were heard clearly, and change came. New interim head coach Dennis "Dirt" Wilson admitted to reporters Monday, "if you saw our facilities then you'd know why [the walkout] took place." That's a public confession that would never have occurred if not for the player revolt. The long-term damage was minimal – Grambling held practice Monday – and the long-term benefit will be felt by anyone who uses team facilities after the upgrade. It's a good step for Grambling and it's a good step for all college football players. Nobody wants forfeited games, but players having a say in matters of health and safety is far more important than any on-field win. It's also far more important than a stipend of a few thousand dollars that too many will see as hush money.
Something like this will happen again. Another team will stand up for its rights and force administrators to pay attention. That eventuality may scare a lot of people as it'll feel like an uprising – an epidemic where the inmates are running the asylum.
It's quite the opposite. The epidemic is overpaid, too-empowered coaches having little accountability to the players they are supposed to be leading. There should be a check on that kind of power, and Grambling players, by sitting still, are leading everybody down the right path.