Brother to Brother: Will, Sports are the Front Porch to the HBCU for a Reason

My Dear Brother Will:

I am in receipt of your letter on the precarious nature of athletics at HBCUs published today, which challenges my position on the necessity of sports as an economic driver for the academic enterprise. My fondness grows for your friendship and intellect; your letter demonstrates the kind of earnest compassion and sharp intellect only HBCUs can produce, and which will be necessary to save many of our campuses in the years to come.

But on the subject of sports and the HBCU, we remain as brothers yet diverge as heartfelt advocates. Your points are well taken on the notion of research and development as a desperately needed element of HBCU financial well-being. But I contend that this wheel will only turn at its full potential if other wheels within the HBCU machine power its capacity through marketing, alumni engagement, and corporate partnership.

Athletics is the one auxiliary function of the HBCU, and almost any college or university, which best helps in all three respects. Without it, we miss out on the financial benefits which come from athletic programs, and the potential to grow community brands in diverse ways.

I concede the point that HBCUs are best suited with investments in research with sports as a complementary point of priority, but they aren’t ill-suited with athletics as just that – a priority. Sports continues to be the single largest auxiliary economic program of most HBCUs through homecoming alone, which can attract tens of thousands of people to campuses and cities to boost black-owned businesses, apparel sales, and revenues through parking and concessions.

Many HBCUs yield between $500,000 and $1 million annually in donations from soft drink and food service vendors on campus who design contracts and donate to HBCUs based upon exposure opportunities created through the football and basketball homecoming event apparatus.

That’s just homecoming alone – a single-day sporting event that for our 100-plus campuses collectively generates billions annually in dollars circulating among black colleges, black businesses, and black communities annually. Is it a curse on the academic enterprise? Absolutely. But where would the HBCU academic enterprise be, and where would those communities be without it? And what could possibly stand to replace it?

Another missing component of your take on athletics is the element sports plays in compliance with accreditation standards. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the Higher Learning Commission – the three major organizations which accredit most HBCUs – each mention athletics as an important part of how institutions should be gauged for ethics, transparency, and sound practices in fiscal affairs and compliance infrastructure.

One of the quickest ways to identify corruption, incompetence or fiscal instability is to look at the state of sports at an HBCU. We may look at the inequities of the NCAA and its rules of engagement for HBCUs with the same eye of disdain, but I’m sure we would agree that sports also is an important tool for higher education experts and novices alike to identify how resources are (or are not) being utilized in support of student success, business development, and institutional advancement.

If sports are not doing well, chances are good that the college or university is not doing well.

More importantly than all of these things, sports is a gateway of opportunity for black students to earn degrees where they otherwise may not have the opportunity. For as much as we sports fans complain about the talent disparities between HBCU and PWIs, there is no question about the success of HBCUs in graduating black men and women from athletic programs in a variety of fields, with many of them bolstering the numbers on student success from low-income households and communities.

Sports are among the most visible forms of our beloved HBCU mission in action; students are given a chance to compete and the nurturing to turn opportunity into excellence.

This isn’t to say that sports programming is the only venue for HBCUs to provide financial support to deserving students, but it an important pathway to uphold and one that adds to the student engagement and experience of the black men and women who are non-athletes but who also deserve a rewarding, enjoyable college experience.

We may not have NFL draft picks in great numbers, but how do we claim a Tarik Cohen without sports? How do we claim UMES as an NCAA national champion without its women’s bowling team?

Does North Carolina A&T or Alcorn State set multi-year application and enrollment records without national exposure through multiple appearances in the Celebration Bowl?

Sports helps in attracting the future researchers and entrepreneurs which we agree will be the ultimate salvation for our schools through funded research, philanthropy and corporate support. Their allegiance to HBCUs will be fortified by the experiences they have as students and the identity of institutional competitiveness and pride which sports inherently support. HBCU sports may not be as well-managed as we’d like or as glamorous as the programs run by PWI counterparts, but they serve many interests across the average HBCU campus portfolio.

If sports disappear, then so will HBCU marching bands, hundreds of black businesses, an important tool in gauging institutional transparency, community ambassadorship and an essential recruitment mechanism.

That doesn’t sound like financial salvation to me dear brother; it sounds like suicide.

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