This past Saturday saw the fruits of a successful protest by college football players. Grambling beat North Carolina Central 10–9 in the Celebration Bowl, capping off the school’s 12-win season and earning the Tigers their first HBCU national championship since 2008. Most of their wins were blowouts, and their only loss was a game at Arizona that Grambling had led 21–3. That a cash-strapped HBCU could lead a Pac-12 team on the road is a testament to the talent of these Tigers.
Just three years ago, Grambling was in the opposite place. The Tigers went 1–11 and had to forfeit a game when the team decided to boycott over unsafe facilities, poor treatment from the school’s administration, and a lack of communication about who would become the team’s interim head coach. It would be overly simplistic to say the team’s present-day success is entirely a product of that boycott. But it served as a clear turning point, a warning to the school that if it wanted the football team to succeed, it’d have to buy in. And here the Tigers are now.
The boycott stood as proof of the power of college athletes. Unlike professionals in the MLB, NHL, and NFL, college athletes have never stopped and refused to play en masse, even though they receive the least compensation for their efforts. The players at Grambling used their agency to improve their playing conditions and their team.
Saturday also saw the end of an extremely unsuccessful attempt at protesting by college football players. Minnesota’s football players attempted to get the university to revoke the December 13 suspension of 10 of their teammates after the university completed its investigation into a woman’s allegations of sexual assault. All those players managed to do was draw national attention to the disturbing allegations against their friends. They made the wrongest argument of their lives, and they did it as loudly as possible.
Last week, the players had announced that they would be boycotting all football activities. If the school didn’t acquiesce to their wishes, they would not play against Washington State in the upcoming Holiday Bowl, which was supposed to be a sunny, lucrative celebration of the team’s eight-win season in San Diego. Then, on Friday, the school’s report on the sexual assault accusations was leaked to a local TV station. The players could finally read, if they so chose, about what their teammates were accused of. It’s an 80-page summary of nonconsensual group penetration in which one of the accused players said he heard the woman saying things like, “I don’t want to,” “this is too many people,” and “it hurt.” He added that “from the stuff she said, it didn’t seem like she was into it … she said something that made it seem like it wasn’t the right thing to be doing.” Saturday morning, after the players (and some of their parents) reportedly read the document, the team ended its boycott.
Throughout their protest, the Minnesota players didn’t seem to ever fully understand any of the things they were doing — or the basic tenets of the legal system. Their initial message to the media — a statement they had presumably spent time preparing — was a logically flawed mess about how their teammates’ “constitutional rights” had been violated. The Constitution doesn’t promise anybody the right to play college football, which is the only privilege any of the players were stripped of.
After the players released the statement, wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky alluded to the prosecutor’s decision not to press charges, saying his teammates had been “found not guilty by the law.” That’s not something a prosecutor can determine. And even if they had been found not guilty by the law, a university judicial process would still have the right to punish them. Just because prosecutors declined to bring charges against the players doesn’t mean the assault never happened.
Minnesota’s players didn’t understand how little leverage they had, either. They probably learned that protests can have a tremendous amount of power from watching Missouri’s team threaten to boycott a game against BYU last season — an act that resulted in the resignation of the school’s president within two days. But Missouri’s players joined an already-large student movement protesting racist incidents on campus and the administration’s response, and they did so just days before a regular-season game. They were irreplaceable, and Missouri’s administration understood that.
The Minnesota players, on the other hand, started their ill-conceived protest several weeks ahead of an exhibition game in which they could very easily be replaced — Northern Illinois was ready to go to take Minnesota’s spot in the Holiday Bowl.
But most importantly, the Minnesota players didn’t seem to understand the very real possibility that their teammates have sexually assaulted a woman. In their initial statement, they said that “the boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed and the suspensions for all ten players involved are lifted” — essentially and incorrectly implying that due process would definitely show that all of their friends were in the right.
I don’t know why our society demands overwhelming, jarring evidence to even think about believing a woman when she says she has been a victim of violence, sexual or otherwise. But we do. We saw this last Friday when video of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon punching a woman was released after a years-long legal battle. The facts of the Mixon case were never in question — Mixon had punched the victim so hard that her jaw was broken, requiring it to be wired shut and preventing her from eating solid food — but the video reheated criticism that Mixon should have been kicked off the team back in 2014, rather than suspended. Fox Sports wrote that “it’s one thing to know what happened … it’s another to see it happen.”
Without overwhelming, jarring testimony, Minnesota’s players were confident enough to fight for their friends’ reputations at the expense of another person’s. They were willing to take a stand, talk to the national media, and potentially cost their school about $200,000. (The Big Ten splits bowl payouts evenly, so Minnesota does not make all of the Holiday Bowl payout, which was $2.8 million last year.) But once they apparently read the words of the woman who spoke out — and the words of their teammates — they instantly capitulated.
As the players announced the end of their boycott, they gave a statement about how they believed “sexual harassment and violence against women have no place on this campus.” But those words feel empty. We all hate the idea of assault. But how we choose to act makes a bigger difference than what we think in the fight against sexual violence.
Minnesota’s players seemingly chose to battle naively with no facts, no legal knowledge, and nothing but their steadfast belief that their friends had to be right and the woman who said she was assaulted had to be lying. (Research shows the overwhelming majority of people who report being raped or assaulted are not lying.)
One can hope that this reminds other teams to be wise about how they voice their agency, to strive to not only denounce alleged abusers, but to support those who identify as survivors of sexual assault.
But it could go the other way. Minnesota’s players united as an entire team to use their platform to battle against the punishment for a group of people facing sexual assault allegations and publicly sow seeds of skepticism in those allegations. They failed, but the stance they took was still dangerous, especially for a society that has no problem disbelieving women.