In the wake of Grambling football team standing up for what they believe in, and forcing the once proud program and university to forfeit Saturday’s game against Jackson State, many in the college football community have felt the need to speak out.

I would advise folks to tread lightly, because you’ve never walked in these young men’s shoes. If you’ve never played football or basketball at an HBCU, I would advise you to talk to someone who has or still is.

Let me shed some insight into the plight of Grambling players through my own experiences. I’m going to tell you guys a little story.

I am a proud alumnus of Cheyney University, the oldest African American institution of higher learning in this supposed great nation of ours. I understand and can feel those same frustrations Grambling players are feeling and probably have felt for years.

During the 1997 season at Cheyney, we were scheduled to take on Bethune Cookman in a black college football classic at their home stadium. Cheyney, for those that don’t know, is Division-II and a member of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. So talk about excited.

A team full of guys mostly from the D.C., Maryland, Philadelphia, Jersey and New York tri-state area were getting the chance to fly to Daytona Beach and move up in competition against a pretty good Division-IAA team.

We were talking about Cheyney, of course, so by Thursday’s practice our coaches had an announcement for us. Unlike the other colleges and universities who would choose to travel a day or two before to such a huge game, we were told that we would be flying out the morning of.

Talk about shock, anger, and immediate resentment. So we board up and get on two buses that departed campus at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning, fully aware of the fact that we’d would take on a speedy and athletic Bethune Cookman team some 14 hours later.

We boarded our flight at 7:00 a.m. and arrived in Atlanta for a layover. That’s right, not a straight flight to Orlando, but a four-hour layover in Atlanta before departing for Orlando around 1:30 p.m. We arrived in Orlando around 3:15 p.m. and took two more buses on the hour-drive to Daytona Beach. We ate a team meal at Shoney’s and arrived at our team hotel around 5:15 p.m..

At that moment, we were informed by coaches that we had an hour to rest, ice or do anything else before the bus departed for Municipal Stadium at 6:30 p.m. To make a long story short, we hung in the ballgame for a quarter or two, but ended up losing 41-6 to a pretty good team.

So I can feel the Grambling State players' pain when they talk about not wanting to take a bus 600 miles to a ballgame when the team you are facing flew in and is beyond fresh.

There are 106 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States, with most being located below the Delaware and D.C. area. The conversation about HBCUs and the difficulties they facing in fielding a football program isn’t anything new. It’s just big news on this Saturday because a team decided they were fed up.

The Sports Illustrated piece written by George Dohrmann is riveting to some, but old news to me. This is a small photo of what the LSU Tigers weight room looks like:
Pretty nice weight room right there? That’s just a corner of their massive training facility. Here is the description from Dohrmann about Grambling’s weight room, and the problems they were having even getting a new floor.
Covering the concrete floor are large interlocking rubber tiles. They are light gray now but were almost certainly a different shade when they were installed years ago. Many of them curl at the edges or have corners missing, hazards that can cause an unsuspecting player to trip. In some areas, entire tiles are gone. Imagine hoisting 300 pounds while having to watch your step. In a sport where injuries are common, the last thing players need are physical hazards in their own weight room. That is how the Tigers’ football players train.

The floor is not the only sign of the building’s decay. There is rust around some windows and insulation droops down from where ceiling panels are absent. Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) schools “are often asked to do more with less,” says school president Dr. Frank Pogue, and that is indisputable. But the weight room floor represents more than the financial constraints that have long hampered Grambling and other historically black colleges. It also symbolizes the political infighting and mismanagement that have plagued the school in recent years, problems which precipitated the football program’s rapid decline, and which helped spark this week’s unprecedented protest by the players.

How can a floor stand for so much?

Near the start of the 2013 season, the Grambling Legends, a group unaffiliated with the school, put up $11,000 to buy replacement flooring for the weight room. Doug Williams, then the Tigers coach — as well as a popular alumnus, a former Super Bowl MVP and a member of the Grambling Legends — helped arrange the purchase of the new rubber flooring, just as he had done last summer with new flooring for the team’s locker room. Williams had a history of ruffling administrative feathers at the school — in April 2012 he sued Grambling State for performance bonuses he says he was owed — and he often circumvented the athletic department’s chain of command. The funds to pay for the new weight room floor, which had not been filtered through the school’s foundation as Pogue and athletic director Aaron James demanded, were yet another instance of that.

Pogue and James, however, refused to install the new floor and had it stored in another building near the team’s practice field. A week after the large rolls of flooring were mothballed, they fired Williams from his job as the Tigers’ football coach.
So a Grambling State and NFL legend, Doug Williams, was fired for trying to use his own funds and the funds of other program supporters against the wishes of a president who has no affiliation with the university whatsoever.

Since the 2007-08 season, overall state funding for Grambling has gone from $31.6 million to $13.8 million. Grambling has attempted to offset the funding gap by raising tuition. Generally, the school has “cut to the bone,” says Leon Sanders, Grambling’s vice president for finance.

This has still gone on for far too long. I have no interest in making it a race or a class thing. I’m not schooled enough in the economics of public education to blame the NCAA, or the federal government for the matter, but enough is enough.

If schools can’t afford the football program they have, then just do away with football at your university as a whole. But it makes no sense for a football team to spend 37 of a 48-hour period stuck on buses traveling halfway across country to play a game that they surely can’t win.

I applaud these young men for standing up for what’s right, and hope many more will follow suit.

This article was written by Glenn Erby. Follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work here


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