How Grambling State Football Went From Top Spots To Boycott

For 55 years, the legendary coach Eddie Robinson built Grambling State University's football program almost from nothing. Under Robinson's watch, the small school in northern Louisiana sent players to the NFL and broke the NCAA's record for wins. But Robinson is long gone and this year the Grambling State Tigers are winless. Last week, the team boycotted, forcing Grambling State to forfeit to Jackson State University. What's happened to Grambling? Melissa Block talks to Sports Illustrated senior writer George Dohrmann about the boycott.

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Football at Grambling State University in northern Louisiana is a mess. Once, the Grambling Tigers were the gold standard among historically black colleges. For 55 years, the team's coach was the legendary Eddie Robinson. He sent dozens of players to the NFL, including four Hall of Famers. Robinson also won a then NCAA record of 408 games. Well, now Robinson is long gone. The team is winless this year. The facilities are crumbling and the players staged an open revolt. On Saturday, the football teamed refused to travel, forcing Grambling to forfeit a game against Jackson State.

So what's happened to Grambling? For that we go to George Dohrmann went to Grambling for a story for Sports Illustrated. George, welcome to the program.

GEORGE DOHRMANN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And first, let's talk about this boycott. Why did the football team refuse to travel?

DOHRMANN: Yeah, the breaking point was weekends ago, they went to a game in Indianapolis. And they were playing Alcorn State which flew to the game. But Grambling had bused to the game. It was a 16-hour bus ride and they got, you know, hammered 48-to-nothing. And the players said flatly that it really affected their performance. So this was really a breaking point, this hellish trip that they had to take.

They have been feeling like the administration had not been supporting them financially, that the conditions in which they were playing were not adequate, so it just sort of boiled over. And they walked out of a meeting with administrators. Then they skipped practice and ultimately they refuse to play the game.

BLOCK: You were talking about the facilities being inadequate. You were down there, how bad are they?

DOHRMANN: They're pretty bad. You know, you walk into their weight room and there are big rubber tiles missing where guys could trip while lifting weights. Or the padding on the weight benches is all torn up. And, you know, there are ceiling tiles missing and insulation coming through, rust on the windows. I mean it really is dilapidated.

BLOCK: Well, part of which layout in your story, George, is that state funding - this is a state university. State funding has been slashed dramatically, so it's not just the football program or the athletic program. All across the university, they have to make huge cuts.

DOHRMANN: Yeah. I think it's difficult for players to understand that they're not being picked on. This is a university-wide issue. Grambling State funding has been cut over 50 percent the last few years. And it means that, you know, teachers have had to teach extra classes. They've laid-off, I think, over 120 people. And for years they exempted athletics from the cut, but then these last few years there's just been no choice. And that's what the players are feeling now.

BLOCK: Has anybody to talk to raise what would be unthinkable for most schools but, you know, football programs are hugely expensive. Has anybody said, you know, this is a school that just cannot afford to have a football team anymore?

DOHRMANN: That's a really big question and I brought this up with Dr. Pogue, their president. Everybody there, including him, sort of said I could never imagine Grambling without football. But the reality is that unless they find new revenue streams, they should maybe start thinking about the possibility of Grambling without football.

BLOCK: So what happens now? Is the team boycott ongoing or are they going to play?

DOHRMANN: No, the players that came out today and said, you know, the boycott is over and they're going to finish the season; that they feel like their statement has been made. And the school has announced that there's going to be some improvements made, not really specific as to what those improvements are going to be. But for right now, the two sides are coming together and they're going to try to finish the season.

BLOCK: George Dohrmann is senior writer with Sports Illustrated. George, thanks so much.

DOHRMANN: Thank you.

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