Jackson State University wants to recoup money it lost when its homecoming football game was canceled in a boycott by Grambling State players over what they say are shortcomings in travel and training facilities.
Grambling players said yesterday they would return to practice and finish their season while maintaining pressure to fix problems that followed cuts in state education funds. They said they had no regrets.
Their actions drew praise from critics and commentators on college sports, who also said it was unlikely to produce a broader protest from athletes at upper-echelon schools where television contracts provide billions of dollars.
“It would take football and basketball players with a very good strategy,” said Ramogi Huma, founder of the National Collegiate Players Association, which wants improved scholarships, graduation rates and health and safety measures for college athletes. “I don’t know that players are there at this point, but that’s not to say they might not get there.”
Eric Stringfellow, a spokesman for Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi, said in a telephone interview yesterday that it’s too early to say how much money was lost from the canceled game. He said Jackson State expected as many as 40,000 fans for the contest three days ago, and instead drew 15,000 for a scrimmage and marching-band performance.
“As a state institution, we have a fiduciary responsibility to explore discussing any way to recoup our losses,” he said. “We’re a public service. We work for the taxpayers.”
The boycott drew national attention to Grambling, a historically black school with a profile far above the second tier of college football where it plays. The Tigers were coached by Eddie Robinson, the Division I victory leader with 408, and later by Doug Williams, who was the first black quarterback to play in the National Football League’s championship game.
Grambling, which has an 0-7 record this season, hosts Texas Southern on Oct. 26 in Grambling, Louisiana.
“To get what we feel was right, we had to take a stand,” Naquan Smith, a player and team spokesman, said at a news conference in front of the Eddie G. Robinson Museum on campus. “We have no regrets.”
The decision to return, the players said, came after consultation with Williams, who played for the Tigers under Robinson and was fired early this season after 12 losses in his last 13 games as coach. He was replaced by running backs coach George Ragsdale, who was reassigned amid the player upheaval. Defensive coordinator Dennis Winston is the latest interim coach.
The players at Grambling have said they are upset about reductions to the football budget, a result of state higher-education cuts. The school received $13.8 million in state aid this year, down from $31.6 million in 2007-08, said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor and author of “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.”
“Whether or not they meant to, they’ve rang the alarm bell on a devastating series of budget cuts that two to three years ago, when the president was trying to call attention to it, no one was listening,” Freedman said in a telephone interview. “Ironically, in a showdown with him, what the football players have been able to do is get attention to this issue.”
In 1967, students at Grambling used homecoming, and the football game, as a way to call attention to racial inequalities in funding education in Louisiana, Freedman said.
“What they’ve done is give voice to a much larger tragedy than what just happened to the team,” he said. “They’re part of a tradition at Grambling, a great tradition of civil rights activism at black colleges.”
That activism, Freedman said, included Robinson, who frequently was criticized for not taking a more vocal role in advocating for civil rights.
“What he tried to do for the movement was really through football,” Freedman said. “He really believed in being a role model, in being a dignified, educated black man who produced student-athletes who all got their degrees and went on to purposeful lives.”
Freedman said Robinson, who died in 2007, recruited James Harris with the intent of making him the NFL’s first black quarterback. Harris played professionally for 10 years.
The boycott at Grambling also drew attention from players at revenue-generating football programs such as top-ranked Alabama and Ohio State, Huma, a former UCLA football player, said in a telephone interview.
Huma said the Grambling players’ action might buoy athletes who are seeking changes in National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, such as those that bar them from capitalizing on their sports achievements.
For years, he said, players wondered what effect a boycott would have.
“It’s not theoretical anymore,” Huma said. “Some of these activities are awakening the consciousness.”