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Alcorn State, defending SWAC champion, won’t play spring football

The Braves are the first SWAC team to announce they don’t plan to play

Alcorn State has become the fifth FCS-level historically Black college (HBCU) program to cancel football for the 2020-21 season. The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) power is opting out of the spring 2021 football season because of COVID-19 issues in the program.

“Due to concerns and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming spring football season, we have determined opting out is our best course of action,” Alcorn State athletic director Derek Horne said in the school’s official release.

“This is indeed a difficult decision, and I’m especially mindful this will be disappointing news to our student-athletes, along with our dedicated fans and supporters. The football program is our largest sport and involves over half of our student-athletes on campus, and a decision of this magnitude is also made with the best interests of the community in mind.

“We looked forward to defending our conference title; however, in these unprecedented times, the safety of the players, coaches, staff and fans is our top priority.”

Alcorn State, winner of the last two SWAC championships and the conference’s representative in the last two Celebration Bowls, will join Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) members Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and North Carolina Central, and Big South member Hampton, in forgoing football this year.

Both Division II HBCU conferences, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, decided last fall to cancel football for the year. Tennessee State, of the predominantly white Ohio Valley Conference, is still scheduled to play this season, with its opener set for Feb. 21.

Alcorn State is the first of the SWAC’s 10 schools to call off the season and, by all accounts, is one of two SWAC members that have paused football activities because of COVID-19. The other is fellow Mississippi institution Jackson State, which paused on Jan. 27. The Tigers have since resumed workouts.

Alcorn State was scheduled to open its spring season on Feb. 27 at Alabama A&M. The Braves were picked by league coaches and media relations officials as the overwhelming favorite to win the SWAC East Division, and senior quarterback Felix Harper was chosen as preseason offensive player of the year.

The NCAA has granted players an extra year of eligibility in light of the pandemic, so Harper and other Alcorn players in their final seasons can return to play in the fall if they choose.

Both the SWAC and MEAC built their spring football schedules with the flexibility to factor in possible opt outs by their teams. The MEAC has rearranged its football schedule twice, most recently after North Carolina Central dropped out on Jan. 21.

The SWAC chose to pass on an FCS playoff berth, despite the absence of a Celebration Bowl for the 2020-21 season, and scheduled its title game for May 1, giving it even more cushion to adjust its schedule for teams dropping out. Commissioner Charles McClelland has repeated that since last spring, when the SWAC first postponed the football season, that it would not hesitate to cancel football altogether if the pandemic dictated it.

“COVID-19 is gonna dictate what we do,” McClelland told reporters in mid-January at the league’s virtual media day. “If the recommendation comes that we need to stop, we will stop.”

At the FCS level, the Ivy League canceled football for the year, and among the other predominantly white conferences, only a handful of programs have opted out.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture. He also is the author of "It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism," published in 2022.