College football is among the most popular and high-profile sports in the country. Yet it is also a sport where the voices of those who play—of those who hurl themselves violently at each other for a scholarship—continue to be unheard.
The boycott by Grambling State University football players, first reported by the Shreveport Times, is many things. Sports Illustrated's deep dive into the situation reveals as much. It is a money problem, an athletics problem, an institutional problem, a political problem and an ego problem—among many other things.
It was also an instance when the players had enough of those problems and the cruddy working conditions that have developed as a result. So they let the school's administration know just how they felt by walking out of a meeting with university officials and later skipping practice. A game against Jackson State eventually had to be forfeited.
Yet, for those who follow major college football, the story at Grambling can seem to be a distant concern, like a news broadcast of rioting in a Third World country.
But what's happening at that historically black college in Louisiana is a reality that many other smaller programs fear they will come face to face with before too long.
Moldy equipment and weight rooms, lack of funding, lack of food for student-athletes—these problems aren't unique to historically black colleges and universities. As B/R's Michael Felder writes, these are problems at small-budget programs. They are problems that affect schools whose alumni bases are small and/or unwilling to donate. They are problems for schools that dip into subsidies from a student body who may not be able to pay them.
Eventually, these issues are going to confront all small-budget programs if they haven't already. Yet getting rid of football isn't as easy as an administrator snapping his or her fingers. Rather, institutions of higher education rely on football for exposure and the hope that it'll bring in that big paycheck.
But keeping that football program afloat costs money, sometimes money the university doesn't have. It's the ultimate catch-22.
In the meantime, players at schools like Grambling suffer and there's no one to speak up for them. There's no NFL Players Association, no union, no board acting on their behalf. So they had to speak up for themselves.
That takes courage and hopefully inspires other players across college football to do the same if they feel their conditions aren't reasonable. But that doesn't mean they should have to do it alone. Ultimately, there should be an organization—a student-athlete association—that ensures conditions in places like the weight room are acceptable and that on-the-field issues like player safety are addressed appropriately.
This is not the same idea as the All Players United movement, which focuses on the ongoing demands for NCAA reform. In fact, a student-athlete association focusing on player well-being would be completely separate from the NCAA.
That's because the issues like the ones at Grambling are not in the NCAA's wheelhouse, and never have been. The NCAA is more concerned about spending three years figuring out which Miami football players got a free dinner from booster Nevin Shapiro and less with preventing players who are concussed from returning to a football game.
The NCAA is an entity that serves the interests of its members through legislation and enforcement. As it turns out, one of its members, Grambling State, isn't so interested in running a sustainable football program.
So leave the player well-being to a group whose full-time job is making sure demands are met.
The word "entitled" can often have a negative connotation, but student-athletes are every bit as entitled to safe and reasonable conditions as the average student is to a safe and clean dorm room or science lab. For all the debate about whether football player should be paid, it's the least that can be done for them.