Mr. Nocera, I’ve long enjoyed your work for the Times, and find the range of topics you tend to explore as interesting as the conclusions you tend to draw about them.
However, I had a significantly different experience when I read your September 18 exploration of HBCU football entitled “Historically Black Schools Pay the Price for a Football Paycheck.” While your work was fair and well-researched, with hindsight being 20-20, I do wish you’d considered adding the perspectives of HBCU Football journalists and industry professionals to the mix of individuals cited in the report. I’m aware there are deadlines to be met, and at some point the report has to be filed to demanding editors; however, in this case, all-too-important viewpoints were left omitted, leaving me with a prevailing, and ominous sense of your reading of the issue. That occasionally misanthropic reading stokes an ever-present mindset among some HBCU alumni and supporters—a perennial crowing for a discontinuation of HBCU engagement in “money games” (and often, to discontinue competing versus predominately white institutions (PWI) writ large) that smacks to me of a return to a Jim Crow-ing of HBCU Football. This mindset is not only a culturally retrograde notion, but it runs counter to the cultural, philosophical, and economic missions of HBCU institutions across the country, and to one that legendary Coach Eddie Robinson shared many decades ago—that the pageantry, tradition, and culture of HBCU Football should be shared with the entire world.
At a time when HBCUs as a sector face existential threats due to accreditation challenges, enrollment declines, executive turnover, and legislative chicanery of many stripes (including over-zealous, gubernatorial appointed boards and state legislation thinly veiled as merger/consolidation/closure attempts), competing in so-called “money games” provides not only an economic opportunity, but a marketing, exposure, and collaborative opportunity that HBCUs need desperately to grow, carve niches, explore new opportunities, and continue to define their importance in the 21st century higher education marketplace. Consider that these contests not only yield a pay-day for cash-strapped athletic departments, but also:
Television exposure for the entire institution: televised games means halftime appearances by HBCU marching bands, a cultural hallmark, and often, halftime interviews with presidents, in-game cutaways which expose viewers to prominent alumni contributions, and extremely valuable :30 spots which highlight our institutions to the entire audience, including those watching online streams;
A fuller, richer, more diverse Division I experience for HBCU student-athletes, some of whom do not have the opportunity to play in front of large crowds, in big stadiums, against the very best competition in NCAA Division I save for in these games. For many student-athletes (and their coaches), these contests are invaluable opportunities to match up against the very best amateur competitors in the country, and for coaches, an opportunity to network and develop relationships that can enhance their ability to lead their programs;
An opportunity for HBCU fans, family, and students to take the show on the road: HBCU fan bases are known for their enthusiastic, vocal, and visible support, which constantly leaves our FBS hosts in awe. Any time a host fan comes into contact with such enthusiastic support, this positive impact has the potential to transform ideas, opinions, and even pernicious stereotypes about HBCUs as institutions;
A chance to ‘shock the world’: Humiliating losses are, well, humiliating. And while an HBCU Football win over an FBS team is unlikely to tip the scales with regard to college football superiority, success in these games sends an equally strong message regarding HBCU Football’s place in Division I. Just ask the folks at my alma mater, Pac-12 member Arizona, down 21-3 at the half versus Grambling State and only coming back to win 31-21 after GSU’s quarterback was injured just before the half; or at MAC member Kent State, who was upset by MEAC member North Carolina A&T 39-36 in 4OT. Had you the opportunity to interview Grambling Head Coach Broderick Fobbs, or NCA&T Head Coach Rod Broadway for this article, I can only imagine your conclusion would’ve differed.
The tone and timbre of your article occasionally unearths a pernicious suggestion—that black and white are oil and water, and that HBCUs and PWIs just don’t mix. This breeds the perennial and inevitable calls for HBCUs to ‘take care of themselves’ by increasing ticket sales and donations so that “money games” can be avoided completely—as if HBCUs can just increase their donations and ticket sales, overnight, by $500k-$1 million, by doubling their fan base, their ticket prices, or both. Or, the suggestion that HBCUs should all go to Division II—as if there aren’t A) PWI programs struggling as much or more than HBCUs in Division I and B) extremely healthy HBCU programs that flat out belong in Division I. There is obviously an economic need to participate in “money games,” and a corresponding existential angst regarding those needs. Why isn’t the full scope of potential benefits of participating in these games considered?
Concepts like humiliation, exploitation, desperation, and embarrassment, used to describe HBCU alumni and student-athletes participating in or observing “money games,” capture only a sliver of the total sentiment. Though those perspectives exist, they represent only a segment of the collective HBCU perspective. The alternating voices in your article who speak up against these emotional responses only by defending the potential economic gains—rather than the corresponding emotional, psychological, philosophical, AND economic gains—provide an incomplete picture.
If you ever follow up this exploration of HBCU participation in “money games,” please consider speaking with industry professionals, such as Kenn Rashad of HBCU Sports, Eric Moore of Onnidan.com, Steven Gaither of HBCU Gameday, Jarrett L. Carter of HBCUDigest.com, or Dr. Kenyatta Cavil of Inside the HBCU Sports Lab, who have addressed these issues thoroughly with HBCU athletic department administrators, coaches, presidents, and alumni.