When the Grambling Tigers took the field for their homecoming game in October 1967, a group of students stood just behind one end zone. They were conspicuously reading textbooks, and they carried sheets of paper with a list of demands called "The Mandates." This piece of political theater culminated days of boycotting classes and holding teach-ins.
The protesters were decrying the racial disparities in education funding that persisted in Louisiana 13 years after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the principle of "separate but equal" as unconstitutional. Knowing the attention that Grambling's stellar football team would receive, especially on homecoming weekend, the demonstrators had chosen that time to make their case.
Those turbulent events 46 years ago sprang immediately to my mind as Grambling's football players last week refused to play a scheduled game against Jackson State. The conflict has been widely reported as being about lengthy road trips, poor conditions in team facilities and a personality conflict between university president Frank Pogue and deposed football coach Doug Williams.
But while those elements are present, the Grambling football team has much more importantly -- even if perhaps inadvertently -- followed the model of the 1967 protestors by using the Tigers' gridiron prominence to draw attention to a far larger financial crisis. Much of what has disturbed the football players -- bus trips of as many as 1,500 miles to and from road games, a deteriorating weight room -- is best understood as part of a broader array of cutbacks forced on the university.
One man who can perceive the big picture especially clearly is Willie Zanders Sr. He was the student-council president and leader of the 1967 protests at Grambling, and was ultimately punished with expulsion. For the past several years, as an attorney, he has represented thousands of New Orleans public-school teachers who were summarily fired after Hurricane Katrina.
"It's not just defunding athletics," he said of the recent Grambling incidents. "I like what the players are doing because it's putting the lack of state support out to the public in a way that probably couldn't be done by Frank Pogue or anyone else. By the fact the Grambling football team is not playing, they're accomplishing more than they probably intended to when they started out to protest. This is a bold, courageous stand that will help Grambling with more than football."
Since 2008, when the Great Recession began, Grambling has had to cut the number of its academic degree programs from 67 to 47, lay off 127 employees, and defer more than $24 million of maintenance and rehabilitation for classroom buildings, dormitories, the main library and the football stadium. Neither tuition hikes nor increases in the student body have come close to compensating for the shortfall.
Race, at least on the surface, is not the issue now. The drop in state aid to Grambling from $31.6 million in 2007-8 to $13.8 million this academic year resulted from legislative budget decisions that affect both historically black institutions like Grambling and originally all-white ones like LSU.
Yet it would be a terrible mistake to think race does not flow like an underground river beneath this whole situation. The comparatively feeble support for public education in Southern states cannot be separated from the history of segregation and then of white flight from public schools. To this day, Louisiana ranks in the bottom five states nationally in higher-education appropriations per student, according to a recent report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers. The level dropped by 25 percent just from 2011 to 2012.
Every state in the nation, of course, was afflicted by the recession. But Louisiana was the first state to reject money available under President Obama's stimulus package. Govenor Bobby Jindal did so even as the state was facing a $2 billion budget shortfall. For 31 other states, the stimulus money helped offset budget cuts to their universities and colleges.
There is an old cliché that says, "When America sneezes, the world gets pneumonia." Another variation is that black Americans are the ones who get the disease. And that idiom certainly applies to historically black colleges and universities like Grambling. Without the vast endowments that come from generations of wealthy alumni, these schools have fewer resources to cushion any loss in state aid. Grambling has an endowment just more than $5 million; LSU's, in comparison, stands at $437 million.
The disparity applies to football as much as to any other part of university life. One of the points of dispute at Grambling was the donation of $11,000 by a boosters' group, Grambling Legends, to replace the pitted, cracked floor in the weight room. University officials stated that they were not allowed to take private money without it passing through normal channels, and so the new floor was never installed, infuriating the players.
To focus on that bureaucratic conflict, I think, is to miss the more significant point. At most major colleges, an $11,000 donation for football, or almost anything else, would be penny ante. Big-time educational philanthropy comes with dollar signs that are followed by seven or eight figures. What is so heartbreaking -- and so revealing -- is that Grambling's financial straits are so severe that $11,000 mattered enough to become a flash point.
It is no coincidence, then, that Grambling's troubles have come during a football season that has seen HBCU teams clobbered on the field. Florida A&M's Rattlers, perhaps the most storied football program besides Grambling among black colleges, lost 76-0 to Ohio State. On the same day in September, Savannah State was beaten by Miami 77-7, and Bethune-Cookman fell to Florida State 54-6.
The reason for all the routs was simple. The black colleges so desperately need money for their teams that they must submit to public humiliation in exchange for their share of gate receipts. How I wish we could have seen, say, the 1967 Florida A&M team with future pros Ken Riley, Hubert Ginn, Roger Finnie and Glen Edwards playing against today's Buckeyes.
By now, nearly a half-century since the large Southern schools desegregated their football teams, the exodus of top black players from once-great black college teams is old news. But as the financial crisis at Grambling shows, while an individual star might find a better deal in the SEC or ACC or Big 12, the HBCU's proud, cherished institutions are reeling from financial trouble, on the field and off.
If Grambling's players, through their boycott, have drawn attention to those woes, and if that attention leads to some positive change, then the Tigers will have had a championship season, no matter what their won-lost record.