After they have entered the 145,000-square foot Oregon Football Performance Center, walked across the Nepalese rugs, worked out on the Brazilian hardwood floors of the weight room and sank into the Italian leather couches in the players lounge, you wonder: do the Oregon Ducks know about the guys at Grambling? Have they heard about the Tigers’ moldy locker room and the weight room with the damaged floors?
Before playing Washington State on Saturday, when they pulled on their seventh different uniform combination in seven games, did the Ducks consider the plight of the Grambling football players? Could they possibly relate to the guys who were getting staph infections from wearing the same, unwashed uniforms over and over?
When they take their next chartered flight to a road game, will the Ducks sympathize with the Tigers, who rode buses from Louisiana to Indianapolis for a game, and from Louisiana to Kansas City for another?
Oregon and Grambling both play college football, at least in name. The players are the same age. The rules of the game are the same. But beyond that they have nothing in common, as the obscenely bloated high end of the sport continues to lose touch with the paupers at the other end of the Division I spectrum.
The gulf between the Haves and Have-Nots is an American societal issue more than anything else – but this is the sporting manifestation of it, and this is a sports column. It took a player strike and a forfeited game at a traditionally proud football program for most of America to notice, but the Tigers have gotten our attention.
The sadness of their situation should at least cause a twinge of guilt among all those who bathe in excess at the elite level of college football. Yes, everyone.
The commissioners, university presidents and athletic directors who tore apart rivalries and regional sensibility to realign for more TV revenue. The TV execs who would schedule games at midnight on Mars if they could make a buck. The coaches who are making tens of thousands of dollars in bonus money for such lofty accomplishments as league victories, bowl eligibility and a decent team grade-point average. The players who complain about “exploitation” while pocketing money from agents and boosters behind the scenes. The fans who spend huge sums of money to support the football team but not the educational mission of their favorite school.
And the media members who complain when their free parking isn’t close enough to the stadium, their free press-box meal isn’t good enough or their luxury hotel at a BCS bowl is inconveniently located.
We’ve become desensitized to the silliness of conspicuous consumption in college football. Is there anything in athletics more nonsensical than buying foosball tables from Barcelona for the facility at Oregon? Do the chief tenants of the building, ages 18 to 22 and there to play football, notice or care where their play toys come from? Would it cost the Ducks a commitment from a foosball aficionado or an interior design major if the tables were from a local department store?
But because Oregon’s facility is hailed as the latest and perhaps greatest recruiting advantage, others at the elite end of the spectrum will hustle to catch up. Alabama’s facility has a waterfall now, and 10-foot tall replicas of the school’s most recent championship rings. Tennessee’s plans for a $45 million football facility were altered midstream by then-coach Derek Dooley to include $9 million in adjustments from another consultant. The reason, according to Dooley: “If (recruits) don’t go, ‘Wow!’ then we hadn’t done our job.”
Well, of course. Because there is no such thing as “enough.” Our sense of proportion has been lost, or at least subverted by the notion that victory justifies everything. If ridiculous indulgence is a byproduct of winner-take-all competition, not many people seem to have a problem with that. More seem to celebrate it than question it.
It’s not up to Oregon – or Alabama, or Tennessee – to fix what ails Grambling. (Alhough you wonder whether Ducks sugar daddy Phil Knight, who has done more than any man to ramp up the college sports arms race, could spare a dime to help the school with a set of uniforms?) But everyone at the affluent end of the sport should take note of what’s happening at Grambling, and we should all feel a little bit dirty.
Given the reported program negligence and sorry treatment of its players, the Grambling administration is justifiably on the griddle. (The entire athletic department is a wreck, with a winless football team and a men’s basketball team that went 0-28 last year.) If any situation screams for the intervention of the National College Players Association and its All Players United movement, it’s the one at Grambling.
But NCPA head Ramogi Huma told me that he’s in a more reactive than proactive stance.
“If they reached out to us, we would help out however we could,” Huma said. “We want to have a positive impact.”
Huma said he has heard from none of the Grambling players. Perhaps he should make the first call and offer his services. There may not be as much publicity at the FCS level, but if the point is championing players’ rights and player safety, this is a prime situation to get involved.
The other question is whether the Grambling strike/forfeit is part of an ongoing trend of increasing players’ rights, and where the movement might lead.
“At any school, players have a lot of leverage with their administration,” Huma said, citing reports that Grambling officials originally were threatening to revoke scholarships of boycotting players. “It goes to show who really has the power. They can take scholarships from one, two, maybe five players. But you can’t take all the scholarships or you won’t have a team.
“The fact that they’ve come together is important. There’s strength in numbers.”
Rest assured, college administrators everywhere are keeping tabs on Grambling, and on players’ rights issues everywhere. Whether these are isolated incidents or a real movement remains to be seen, but it’s worth monitoring.
Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. This article is reprinted here with the written permission of Yahoo!