As I watched the NCAA Tournament bracket unfold on Sunday, one thing bothered me more than it probably should. Once again, the MEAC champion was relegated to a 16 seed and being forced to play its first round game against a #1 seed. To add insult to injury, the Hampton Pirates would be traveling to Charlotte, NC to face perennial national contender Duke. The SWAC champion, Alabama State, has to play on Wednesday for the opportunity to face #1 Ohio State, in Cleveland, on Thursday. This made me wonder, why are conferences made up of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) often among the worst in the country? Why is there such a disparity in talent between the HBCUs and other universities?
There was a time when Black players weren’t allowed to play at White institutions. In those times the best players had no recourse but to play at HBCUs. After the major conferences were integrated more often than not, the best players went to play at larger schools with higher profiles. Now HBCUs struggle to even field teams that are competitive within college basketball. How did it happen that institutions developed to educate Black people when there was no alternative have become the last resort for college athletes?
I grew up in the A Different World era (and to a lesser extent the School Daze era) and I saw positive depictions of the Black college experience. On film relationships and the social scene are highlighted while giving some insight in the fraternity and sorority experiences. One thing they didn’t show was athletics. Sports often provided the framework of the story but were never a central part of the Black college experience as depicted on film. A central part of School Daze is homecoming weekend and the low point of the experience is the game where Mission College’s football team is whipped handily by their opponent. This is the reality all too often at HBCUs.
Athletic programs at HBCUs are often mediocre and poorly run. The shoddy administration of these programs lends to a lack of exposure. In a society where many young Black athletes have professional aspirations, lack of exposure makes them undesirable to anyone that really thinks they have a chance (and let’s be honest most athletes believe they have a chance, no matter how minuscule). We all know that good money lies in having good athletic programs. Go look at any campus that’s won any sort of championship in the past few years. Every new related building or program is likely the result of the success of their athletic program. A winning team is free advertising for a university. You can directly correlate increasing enrollments to athletic successes. Winning teams also invoke a sense of pride in the alumni which typically leads to increased giving. So why don’t HBCUs put real support behind them? At some point the administration of these schools has to realize that there are many benefits to financially supporting the athletic programs. Benefits that extend well beyond the courts and playing fields.
I really cannot blame an athlete for choosing Florida State over Florida A&M or Auburn over Alabama State in this day and age. But when an athlete chooses Davidson, Belmont, or Wofford over Southern or Hampton you have to start to ask questions. I don’t think it’s as simple as the White man’s ice being colder as much as it’s about the HBCUs offering inferior opportunities. Are the HBCUs content to be in last place and reap none of the benefits of having successful athletic programs. Will we have to continue to relieve the good old days of Black and White when discussing athletic achievements? Will we have to be glad to “just get in” to tournaments and post season events? As a proud graduate of The University of Maryland – Eastern Shore, I sincerely hope not.