10/21/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Grambling University Football Boycott: Canary in a Coal Mine

When my father started out in the 1930s, the coal mines he worked in Harlan County, Kentucky did not feature ventilation systems, so the miners would bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting any dangerous gas build-ups. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary signaled an immediate evacuation.

I thought about that exercise last Saturday when the football team at Louisiana's Grambling State University boycotted practice, leading to the cancellation of the homecoming game against longtime rival, Jackson State, in Mississippi. The embattled Tigers have had three head coaches in one month, its players are peeved about facilities and are very grumpy about their grueling travel requirements: an all-around atmosphere of wobbliness grips the program that Coach Eddie Robinson coached for 51 years during which time it became known as the winningest football program in NCAA Division I history. Grambling was to historically black college football what Notre Dame was to, well, historically white college football. This signature event at Grambling will either prove to be a recovered fumble, so to speak, or it will signal anew the challenge for public black colleges that is indicative of a deeper malaise that goes to the heart of their very nature, condition, and future.

The Grambling challenge is really about much more than this single incident involving a stellar black college sports team. It's about the collective cultural and social acceptability and the economic sustainability of black colleges in a so-called post-racial America. It strikes at the competitive disadvantage of black colleges in a "survival of the fittest" game. The larger questions are "Who cares, why, and what is to be done" about every aspect of the experience at black colleges.

To remain competitive and grow, black colleges must attract top-notch administrators and a customer-first support staff, they must engage savvy, social media-driven marketing procedures to recruit the smartest faculty and students, and have state-of-the-art libraries, living spaces, computer labs, and technologically "smart" classrooms. The bottom line metric -- a robust endowment -- which includes significant alumni and corporate support and evenhanded state appropriations where public black colleges are concerned are all not easy rows to hoe. This isn't your Great Grandpaw Coach Robinson's historically black college.

Few who fill the stands every fall weekend at major colleges to watch black athletes who but a few quarters ago could not serve as the water boys at places like LSU, Alabama, and other Division I NCAA venues probably care less that NFL Hall of Famers like Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis, and Deacon Jones all went to Grambling, played for Coach Robinson. It was just a half time ago, so to speak, that Chicago Bear legend Walter "Sweetness" Payton played at Jackson State, with little national notice.

More importantly, even those who do not care at all about football at black colleges would appreciate more, if they knew, about the unique environments at colleges like Howard University where Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, civil rights devotee Stokely Carmichael, and Sean Combs studied. Morehouse College should be better known because no other college could have given the world Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Shelton "Spike" Lee, actor Samuel L. Jackson, and recent Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain. North Carolina A&T shaped Rev. Jesse Jackson, while Color Purple author Alice Walker graduated with a degree in English from Spelman College, an all-women's black college in Atlanta. Entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey studied at all-black Tennessee State University.

The whistle that started the boycott that led to the cancellation of the homecoming game last weekend between Grambling and Jackson State, unintentionally, may have blown a new burst of air onto the narrative about the game black colleges have been forced to play by the weight of history. From the sky boxes in higher education, anyone can see that the best black athletes, indeed most black students, period, have been enrolling in the playing fields and basketball courts and classrooms of colleges where just two generations ago they neither dared apply nor would be considered for admission.

The sad truth is that historically black colleges trail their majority peers in most every aspect of the higher education experience, but the only one people really pay attention to are football and basketball. Shame on all of us for that is a game with no winners. The cancellation of the Grambling/Jackson State homecoming game may prove to be the canary wakeup call -- the distress alarm -- that those who care about black colleges need to hear.