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At Grambling and Elsewhere, Student-Athletes Deserve Better

NCAA CEO Mark Emmert

Sports media has been abuzz for the past few weeks about football players at Grambling State University, an HBCU in Louisiana, boycotting a game. The players refused to play a scheduled game against Jackson State University, saying the facilities at the school weren't up to par and that they'd run out of other ways to draw attention to the problems. Reporters confirmed that the the facilities were indeed in dire straits--the floors were coming apart, uniforms weren't being washed properly resulting in staph infections, and the players were low on food and diet supplements. These allegations were embarrassing to a program that once stood proud, but they're also symptoms of a larger issue regarding how student-athletes are treated on a whole. 

Failing student-athletes--a significant percentage of whom are Black-- isn't territory owned by small schools or HBCUs. Many athletes have spoken out about how difficult times were for them while they played for programs worth millions of dollars. Recently, in the documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sports, Houston Texans star runningback Arian Foster admitted to violating the NCAA's rules and taking money on the side to buy food and other items he needed. These kinds of admissions ought to silence those who say that student-athletes are already compensated enough through scholarships. Scholarships aren't available to all athletes that contribute to the success of an athletic program and they don't put food on the table, either. 

Grambling's alleged negligence is an extreme example of how our institutions can both take advantage of and fail student-athletes. Schools want the money that sports programs bring in, but recoil at the suggestion that those athletes should receive a portion of profits or receive additional support to ensure they actually receive the education they're supposed to. The President and Athletic Director at Grambling seemed almost offended that the athletes even complained despite knowing improper training conditions can result in injuries in a sport that is already dangerous by its very nature. Schools have become so used to athletes playing by their skewed rules that challenges to the status quo are met with varying degrees of indifference. 

It's ironic because aversion to exploring how student-athletes are treated flies in the face of what these institutions should be standing for. Colleges and universities are often the places where people first learn how to fight for just conditions. They're also places where folks understand the odds of making it big. Using numbers provided by the NCAA, Business Insider reported that baseball is the only sport where over 2% of NCAA players go on to play at the professional level in the United States. The vast majority of collegiate athletes go on to live normal lives just like you and I which means their health, wellbeing and education during college should be a top priority for the schools they attend.

Grambling seems to have found a temporary fix for its immediate issues through donations from both private companies and individual donors. But the issue of how the NCAA and its member schools frequently fail to adequately take care of student-athletes remains an unresolved blemish on higher education. As evidenced by the All Players United campaign, the tide is beginning turn as collegiate athletes become more vocally critical of their experiences in school. Just two years ago such a public campaign would have been unlikely. But it's about time it's made clear--no student-athlete should be faced with hunger or subpar conditions when the school reaps benefits from their labor. 

Jessica Danielle covers sports with wit and ardor at Playerperspective.com