History unfolds Saturday at noon in Grambling

For all of the hundreds of college football games played by Grambling and Louisiana Tech, we’ve never seen this before.

Saturday at noon in Eddie G. Robinson Memorial Stadium, regular season football competition unfolds in what we in Louisiana call spring. The calendar says spring’s not here yet, but the sports calendar disagrees.

There’s baseball, tennis and softball all underway with outdoor track beginning also. Now, add Grambling football, teeing it up as the tulips start popping out.

Thanks to the pandemic precautions, while LA Tech lined up last fall, Grambling, the rest of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and nearly all the other Football Championship Subdivision programs did not.

Why?

As much as safety concerns were really, truly a concern, the overwhelming reason was money. When decisions were being made in July and early August, university presidents were, like all of us, hoping for some scientific thunderclap that just wasn’t possible. The overwhelming uncertainty about short and long-term implications of the Corona-19 virus led to unprecedented dilemmas, still being debated, over what was prudent. But it was very clear that to play sports, as the NBA and Major League Baseball were doing, and the NFL was preparing to do, required frequent testing. At that point, testing costs were high.

Grambling faced a hefty six-figure tab to test its fall sports athletes – see, it starts with the 115 football players and their 20-30 coaches and staff, but would have to also be done with soccer, volleyball, tennis, basketball, not to mention the spring sports of track, baseball and softball that train all fall.

There wasn’t $200k or so on a low-hanging tree branch in Grambling. Hence, along with all of the hypothetical scenarios about safety, the very real consideration of cost blunted the instinct to push forward with high hopes, good intentions and faith that all would be well, and somehow the expenses would dip or some federal program would appear to mitigate the financial hit.

It was about dollars, and sense.

Now testing costs are fractions of what they were last August. We’ve seen the higher-resourced colleges complete football seasons with low attendance, but thankfully, what appears to be very high levels of health safety. Those schools played in no small part because of TV revenue, multi-millions at the SEC level, down to relative trickles for Conference USA and the Sun Belt. The FCS-level schools like Grambling, Southern, NSU, McNeese, SLU and Nicholls don’t make big-time TV money. They pay to be on TV (exceptions: the Bayou Classic, and this spring’s SWAC programming that allows ESPN to target the attractive HBCU audience). Those CST, ESPN-Plus or ESPN3 games you see involving them are bankrolled by the schools and their conference offices.

That’s why all but 14 FCS schools, among almost 130, did not play football in the fall. A few in the northeast, the Ivy League and such — and the SWAC’s Alcorn State — are not playing this spring either, due to health concerns (they have the money to test, but lack the appetite for any modicum of risk or political fallout). Those few that played last fall could bankroll the testing costs. Central Arkansas had a local hospital that provided free testing. FREE. So, the Bears played on.

Now, testing cost is not a major issue. Health concerns are being allayed with vaccines and scientific advances. It does seem much safer to play football, and live our lives, than it did entering the football season last fall.

For coach Broderick Fobbs and his Tigers, the games are definitely on – well, except the first one Feb. 20 that was wiped out by winter’s assault on the Cotton Bowl. The season kicks off at home Saturday. The World Famed Tiger Band will be in the stands, maybe on the field, but certainly providing exceptional entertainment.

Six games are better than none. There will be a Bayou Classic, albeit in Shreveport and not the Superdome, and there will be a SWAC championship to shoot for. Next fall, things should be close to normal. Right now, Fobbs and his crew are thrilled to have this opportunity to play.

Saturday at noon, it’s Grambling hosting Jackson State. Nobody will be more excited than those young men in black and gold, carrying on as grand a tradition as there is anywhere in college football.

PHOTO:  courtesy GSU


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