The players’ rights movement in intercollegiate athletics escalated beyond talk last week when football players from Grambling boycotted practice and forced the forfeit of a road game against Jackson State.
There has been fanciful talk over the years about what might happen if players in any sport, at any level, refused to show up.
Now we know.
No homecoming game at Jackson State.
If college athletes decide to sit out the Bowl Championship Series final or the basketball Final Four, guess what? No show.
“No one has to wonder anymore,” said Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association. “The powers that be in the N.C.A.A. are taking notice because their worst fear has just happened, at Grambling State.”
The National College Players Association is an advocacy group for college athletes that Huma, a former football player at U.C.L.A., formed in the mid-1990s. Last month, with Huma’s encouragement, 28 football players from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Northwestern had the letters APU, for All Players United, written on their wristbands and other gear during games as a show of solidarity that organizers hope will lead to changes in the N.C.A.A.
The rhetoric around reform is compelling. The wristbands and emblems are nice. But progress depends on deeds, not words.
If college players and advocacy groups like the National College Players Association truly want to show solidarity, they will unite with the Grambling players who turned words into action last week. First the players walked out of a meeting with the university president, Frank Pogue, then boycotted practices. By Friday, a majority of players decided not to play on Saturday.
Will high-profile scholarship players at big-budget programs in the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten and the Pacific-12, or anywhere else, risk their scholarships, and sacrifice television appearances and possible pro careers, by taking a stand against the enormous machine that runs intercollegiate athletics?
Huma’s group is not endorsing boycotting or strikes as a way to gain leverage in the fight for athletes’ rights. “We’ve never advocated boycotting a game,” he said. “Our position right now is not to encourage players to boycott games to bring forth reform. That’s where we’re at, but obviously in terms of leveraging and pressure, that’s the ultimate leverage and pressure.”
The demands of Huma’s group and the players’ complaints at Grambling are not that far apart.
Among other things, Huma’s group is pushing for concussion reform at the N.C.A.A. level, ensuring that players are never stuck with insurance-related medical bills and making sure that permanently injured players do not lose their scholarships. The group also wants to adopt an Olympic model in which star athletes are allowed to endorse products and receive pay for opportunities that arise from those endorsements.
At Grambling, players protested deterioration in the athletic complex, complaining of mildew and mold. The weight room’s floor is coming apart, and it was not replaced because of a dispute between the administration and the former coach Doug Williams, who was fired last month. Players say poor cleaning of uniforms has increased the risk of staph infections.
Players also complained about having to travel 14 hours by bus for one trip and 17 hours by bus for another. Grambling (0-8) lost both games. A university spokesman told The Associated Press that severe cuts in state money had forced the university to make difficult choices.
It is tempting to focus on Huma’s demands and on Grambling’s complaints. The larger issue, however, is which tactics will accelerate reform. Grambling players certainly got their president’s attention.
“It’s time for action,” said Emmett Gill, the founder of the Student Athletes Human Rights Project. “What those young men did took a lot of courage, and they need to be supported. Right now, they’re on an island.” NY Times