Are HBCU Football Players More Prone to Severe Injury in Guaranteed Games?

Tennessee State University sophomore linebacker Christion Abercrombie remains in critical condition, days after collapsing on the sideline from an apparent head injury sustained in a game against Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt University.

The Tigers proved their mettle in their 31-27 loss to their crosstown BCS opponent, but it remains to be seen if Abercrombie will pay a steep price for playing in the type of game some say shouldn’t belong on an HBCU schedule.

Abercrombie is the second HBCU football player to sustain a severe injury while competing against Football Bowl Subdivision-level competition in the last three seasons. In 2015, Southern University receiver Devon Gales sustained debilitating spinal injuries in a game against the University of Georgia which impacted his ability to walk and ended his football career.

Gales led with his head on the play, but Abercrombie’s incident was a regular football collision that did not impede him walking to the sideline and receiving treatment from TSU medical staff before collapsing.

For some it begs the question: are guaranteed games against bigger schools with more resources for recruiting and training athletes jeopardizing the health of players from smaller, lower resourced institutions like HBCUs?

Law professor Aaron Taylor argued the point in a 2015 column for the Chronicle:

Beyond the philosophical objections, the injury to Mr. Gales prompted me to wonder about the legal implications of guarantee games, specifically whether the games place players at risks exceeding the assumptions associated with choosing to play football. If so, then colleges, conferences, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association may well be subject to damages for the resulting injuries.

The games are not premised as competitive contests, and that lack of competitiveness creates higher risks, as do the vast disparities in program resources. For example, the five Southeastern Conference universities that faced MEAC and SWAC football teams from 2006 to 2015 collectively generated almost a half-billion dollars in revenue in 2013.

That total is almost three times as much as the combined revenue of 20 programs in the MEAC and SWAC (data for two institutions were unavailable). Resource disparities affect the entire student-athlete experience, from recruitment to facilities to academic support to training and finally to game-day performance.

According to recent data compiled by the NCAA Injury Surveillance Program, Division I athletes are more likely to be injured in competition and more likely to sustain injuries to knees and ankles. In football, players on special teams are the most likely to be concussed during plays.

There’s no data to show that players from Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) aren’t overwhelmingly smaller, slower, less well-coached or more injury-prone than players from FBS teams. Gales and Abercrombie were statistically just more likely to get hurt on plays conducted in practice than they were against their SEC opponents.

But in beating those odds, both players have added to the angst from HBCU supporters about black colleges competing in out-of-conference matchups with teams from bigger schools. And given the coverage and emotion surrounding the competitive and financial elements of these games, it is almost as if the odds do not matter when it comes to who gets injured and when; just that they are happening to our players in games about which fans are divided on if they are best for them or their schools.

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