No more holding that line on activism Player revolts tied to King verdict

November 20, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Morgan State University: Sixty-nine football players sign a petition to demand their coach be fired.

South Carolina: A tense team meeting reaches a crescendo when one player rises and asks for the coach's resignation.

Memphis State: Eighty-four of 100 players boycott a practice after the coach publicly blames the players for three consecutive losses.

The times most definitely are a changin' in college football, a sport once shaped by iron-fisted coaches yet now rattled by sporadic player insurrections in nearly every corner of the country.

Yet according to Richard Lapchick, head of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport, the source of the new athletic activism can be summed up in two words:

Rodney King.

"There was such a sense of desperation in the country at the time of the Rodney King verdict," he said. "Initially, the outrage went into the streets in Los Angeles. Now, it's on college campuses."

Some may view Lapchick's remarks with skepticism as he links the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of a motorist with the normally authoritarian and brutish world of college football.

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But Lapchick argues that the rise in campus activism following the King verdict has now spilled over from the academic halls to the playing fields.

"Athletes are not the most outspoken people on campus," he said. "They have been historically afraid to express their voice. Any statement about any issue on the part of athletes, no matter how small or large it may seem to the general public, is in fact a significant departure from the norm."

Consider: Two days ago at the University of Oklahoma, a cradle of big-time college football, practice was canceled and a team meeting was held after a group of players challenged coach Gary Gibbs' selection of a starting quarterback.

In October, football players at Alabama State joined a school-wide protest over a parking-permit increase, skipped one practice and threatened to boycott one game. The action resulted in the administration slicing the projected fee hike.

Also in October, Cal State-Fullerton players used the threat of a game-day boycott to jump-start talks with the administration on the school's faltering athletic program.

"This thing is now hanging off shore. The discontent is universal," said Harry Edwards, sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Edwards said influences outside athletics have made today's college athletes bolder and ready for change.

"Agents, family members being able to travel greater distances to see games, and the media, all have taken away the need for the athlete to receive his self-image, self-esteem and self-evaluation from the coach," Edwards said. "This has led to the denigration of the power of coaches."

But coaches and administrators have sought to adapt to the changes in the players.

After riding out his players' one-day practice boycott, Memphis State coach Chuck Stobart resumed full-time workouts and softened his post-game criticisms. His team responded with five straight victories.

South Carolina coach Sparky Woods said he has changed his style since calls for his resignation.

The result: The Gamecocks have won four of their past five games.

Edwards said Morgan State could also turn around its football program in the wake of the call to oust coach Ricky Diggs. His advice to school administrators: listen to the athletes.

"The worst thing that administration can do is ignore the athletes," said Edwards, who led the boycott of black American athletes at the 1968 Summer Olympics. "The second worst thing is to automatically and without investigation condemn and persecute the athletes.

The best thing they can do is bring the athletes into the process," Edwards said. "Get not just the head coach, but the entire athletic department, and the athletes' representatives, to sit down at a table and talk with each other."

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