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The future of HBCU football

After decades of widening disparities, some hopeful ideas to course correct.


Kahron Spearman


According to Sports Illustrated and a Rival IQ study, Jackson State head coach and football legend Deion Sanders is making waves. Since his arrival, JSU is the second-highest-ranked HBCU in the country for social media engagement. Through significant jumps in the major platforms, JSU’s overall ranking in all of college athletics has improved from No. 57 to tie for No. 31.

His overly positive, social media-heavy effort seems to be helping the university turn a corner individually. But he’s also man, amongst many great men and women across the country, attempting to tackle disenfranchisement, inequity, inequality.

Using a messy analogy, in 2011’s Moneyball starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, a scene with Beane among his scouting team roughly touches on the realities of athletics at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs.)

Beane quizzes his scouts for an answer to a seemingly straightforward question: “What is the problem?” After running around the room to each man, he becomes aware that they do not understand a collective peril as a team trying to win a World Series. 

“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams,” says Beane. “Then, there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game… We got to think differently; we are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”

The most important observation stings: “If we try to play like the Yankees in here, we will lose to the Yankees out there.”

Beane’s problem sums up the longstanding static state of HBCU athletics, including (and especially) the larger-manned teams like football. The predicament began and evolved with the integration of collegiate sports, which meant the increasingly incessant plucking of Black talent for materially wealthier extractors: Predominantly white institutions (PWIs) with well-funded athletics programs.

The question is the same as it has always been: How can HBCUs with low material resources, endemic within America’s reinforced culture of systemic inequality, pull their athletics programs from languishment into a thriving state collectively? What does that future look like?

Like Beane, can Sanders, along with a cadre of other coaches, stay on the path and become the “card counters” who propel under-funded HBCUs upward?

‘What is the problem?’

The relatively recent 62-17 walloping of Ivy League representative Harvard over Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) standout Howard in October 2019 is informative concerning funding and how each school receives its resources. It details a deep institutional gap, one much wider in scope, depth, and history than “the Oakland A’s vs. the New York Yankees” could fathom.

Following the game, HBCU Money completed a brief financial summary from sky level. It must be understood that the Ivy League doesn’t generally compete for much other than intra-conference bragging rights and over there, education always trumps its athletics.

And yet, per HBCU Money, for example, “Harvard’s athletic budget is still 70 percent larger than Howard’s and larger than virtually every HBCU. Harvard’s $17.6 million makes a world of difference on the football field compared to Howard’s $10.1 million. The Ivy League average on athletics is $27.1 million, while the average in the SWAC/MEAC is $9.7 million.”

HBCU Money’s review takes on much more, digging deeper. In research expenditures, “Harvard’s annual research expenditure is 24 times the size of Howard’s. Harvard ranked ninth nationally in research expenditures, has a 2017 RE of $1.1 billion. Howard ranked 203rd nationally in research expenditures, has a 2017 RE of $45.8 million.” Moreover, concerning respective endowment figures, “Harvard’s endowment at the end of fiscal 2018 stood at $38.3 billion, while Howard’s endowment stands at $688.5 million.”

The study concludes that Harvard has about $55 for every dollar that Howard has.

Pulling the lens out wider in athletics, HBCU Gameday, citing USA Today‘s athletic budget data from 2017, reported: “The HBCU with the most revenue was Prairie View A&M. PVAMU brought in $17.85 million in 2017, good for 150 on the list. (PVAMU was up to #147 in 2019.) While that number topped HBCUs, it was just under $200 million less than top-ranked Texas. The majority of that money, $10.12 million, came from the school itself. Student fees accounted for another $3 million of the budget.”

Reduction in federal and state funding is also a significant issue, also steeping in racial disparity.

A 2019 study from the American Council on Education. looking at “historical legacy of inequitable funding and investments by federal and state governments” found that “public HBCUs rely on federal, state, and local funding more heavily than their non-HBCU counterparts (54 percent of overall revenue vs. 38 percent.)” Additionally, “private HBCUs are also more tuition-dependent than their non-HBCU counterparts.”

The report states that between 2003 and 2015, private HBCUs saw a 42% reduction in “federal funding per full-time equivalent student.”

These sobering results and data come in the face of an ongoing journey through Jim Crow, anti-Black violence, and institutionalized disenfranchisement in all contexts, including notable drops in Black wealth following the Great Recession and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The broad disparity shows instantly in athletic programs on the ground.


In the trenches

Delano Armstrong, a business owner and former defensive back at (Division-1 SWAC member) Bethune-Cookman University, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Florida, remembers his path to the school during the early ’90s. A former military brat, he had first started at what is now (NCAA Division II) Minnesota State-Moorhead as a running back and track athlete. After a brief stop at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, he ended up at Cookman through a family friend.

He calls the difference between (formerly) “Moorhead State,” then a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics institution, and his time at Cookman.

“It was definitely apples-to-oranges,” Armstrong recalls. “Even though [Minnesota State–Moorhead] is in a lower division, they gave you a meal plan, a weight routine. They had a plan for your position, where they wanted you to be weight-wise, what they wanted in the offseason. It was different at Cookman. When I got there, they didn’t have great facilities. Our weight room was basically a trailer they converted into a weight room. You ate what everyone else ate.”

However, and critically for Armstrong, Cookman offered an improved social, cultural, and educational environment, with more “one-on-one” time with educators and tutors. 

“At [Minnesota State–Moorhead], there might be 250 students in an auditorium,” he remembers. “And they only knew you by your social security number, which was the ID at the time.”

He says the more intimate, “family-style” educational manner later drew his daughters to Bethune-Cookman vs. attending the much-larger University of Central Florida.

Eman Spaulding, a physician in Tampa, Florida, was a former track athlete at Clark Atlanta University, which competes in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He says he had a “fantastic experience” at the institution. 

But he delves swiftly into “the conversation that’s very involved,” in its complexity. 

“On one hand, the experience was great because I got to be a college athlete,” Spaulding says. “I had good coaching, a pretty good athletic trainer, and decent enough facilities. But then it stops there. You start to notice the difference between the support you have financially and the facilities, compared to larger schools.”

By the way, Clark Atlanta’s men’s track no longer exists: “They couldn’t afford to fund it.”

“My experience there is definitely colored by the fact that [the institution] can run out of money. There’s only so much they can find to help the athletes and help the program grow.”

He also notes that because Clark Atlanta is a private institution, attendees “will pay a premium,” and roughly half of the recognized HBCUs are public. The rest are relatively expensive private schools. He also recalls how the university received its current track—as part of a donation following the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“A lot of HBCUs rely on generous donations and gifts,” states Spaulding. “From my perspective, as a Division II athlete at a private Black institution, I have to say that as camaraderie love and camaraderie are there, the support isn’t—and that’s just checkable fact.” 

He clarifies: “That’s not to denigrate what [Clark Atlanta or the administrators] are doing; that’s just how it is.”

More recently, Alcorn State’s football team was forced to forego practice for two days because they did not have a certified athletic trainer on-site due to COVID issues. The university has no full-time trainers on staff.

Alcorn State coach Fred McNair responded on his radio show: “That’s such a discouraging thing to me that we’re not doing a good enough job to bring in someone of our own to be an athletic trainer at Alcorn State University.”

Course correction

Unlike the Moneyball scenario, while wealth begetting wealth has stacked the odds for HBCUs, there is no one coming through the door to cheat the system. They would need to be in league with the big dogs at the trough, like Beane’s Athletics, which did not suffer from systemic disenfranchisement.

As stated in the findings of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group working to correct inequities within the NCAA: “Black athletes at HBCUs arrive on campus after receiving an education at secondary schools that have been historically underfunded—a lingering aftermath of decades of de jure and de facto segregation and systemic racism.”

Then, Black athletes often arrive onto struggling campuses that were hindered via similar anti-Black tactics.

According to higher education experts, America’s HBCUs have been underfunded for decades, “with billions of dollars in state funding that should have gone to those schools diverted by lawmakers for other purposes,” per a CBS News report from June.

HBCU administrators are currently pushing to get these institutions renumerated, with “at least $1.1 billion so far… at stake for up to 50 colleges that educate hundreds of thousands of Black students annually,” per CBS.

According to the report, “Coppin State [University in Baltimore], along with three other HBCUs in Maryland—Bowie State, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Morgan State—are slated to receive a total of $577 million from the state legislature starting in July 2022 that will be disbursed over the next decade.”

Legislative efforts in Maryland and Tennessee will likely push-start similar steps for funding recovery in other states housing HBCUs, especially throughout the South.

Erasing debt is another path forward and could help with donations. Over 20 HBCUs recently elected to wiping millions in student debt using pandemic funding from the federal government.

At the athlete level, Deion Sanders, Tennessee State coach and former Heisman Trophy-winner Eddie George, and former Michigan great-turned-Morgan State ball coach Tyrone Wheatley are blazing what many believe is a necessary path forward. Alongside these moves, calls for Black athletes to galvanize collectively, even forgoing PWIs to attend HBCUs as the Atlantic‘s Jemele Hill suggested, have grown exponentially.

Two years ago, Tyler Tynes of the Ringer believed that many of these well-meaning ideas were fundamentally faulty. Tyner’s thought is still likely true in 2021, even with the emergence of the “name, image, likeness” rulings enabling athletes to profit off their name. He accurately notes that Black athletes “are the most prominent and most exploited members of the NCAA’s collegiate athletic complex.” Simply moving them around with significant alterations to the system won’t yield positive results.

Derrick White, University of Kentucky professor and writer of HBCU football history tome, Blood, Sweat & Tears, told Tynes then: “Even if everybody showed up at Grambling, the state of Louisiana isn’t going to give Grambling more money because they all of a sudden have all the football talent. You’re looking at ancillary monies developed through sports: television, apparel sales, retail, boosters, etc. That still doesn’t change the fundamental fact that Grambling gets less money than LSU from the state. Every black superstar or blue-chipper returning to HBCUs won’t fix any of that.”

“You’re spending so much time fighting for those little bit of dollars it ignores the fact that all these southern states, in particular, have already created these key inequities that will never be fixed without reparations, for lack of a better term.”

Spaulding, though, believes there’s perhaps much more to be done by many so-called Black elites. For instance, boosting alumni donations by way of improving giving rates. According to Yale Daily News, Harvard ranks second in the Ivy League conference with a giving rate of 33.1%. Howard, like numerous HBCUs’ alumni giving rates, sits at roughly 7%, per the Washington Post. While acknowledging and adjusting for definitives realities of the Black-white wealth disparity, the low rates are fixable.

“I think we have to rid the culture of complacency,” he says. “Our successfully Black athletes, entertainers, people who are visible and well-known, have to do more. I don’t want to see Jay-Z partnering with the NFL. I want to use that visibility and pick a spot and invest in it.

“Say, ‘I’m going to Jackson State, or wherever, and I’m going to invest money and resources to build a program. Pick a program and go build it. Deion has been retired for a while, but he said ‘I’m going to fight this battle, at this place.’ Eddie George did the same. You need somebody to pick a place, invest their time, their resources, and their name. That’s how to sustain this and build from it.”

The future of HBCU athletics remains murky, undercut by existential financial concerns brought on by decades of inequality and fast-tracked via the pandemic. Its keepers, however, are more proactive than ever.

See more stories from Presser – examining the intersection of race and sports online.

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