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HBCUs should rethink leaving behind cultural ties and rivalries while chasing future revenue

Are Howard and N.C. A&T the next to join the Colonial Athletic Association?

Administrators at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been scrambling, brainstorming and head-scratching since Jan. 25, when Hampton University announced it was leaving the Big South Conference, where it had been since 2018, to join the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).

To add even more intrigue, Monmouth was also part of the Big South exodus to the CAA, and Kennesaw State and North Alabama moved to the ASUN Conference. Those moves left the Big South with only five football-playing schools.

The musical chairs were troubling on many levels to fans and administrators across the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Big South, which now falls short of the six teams needed for an automatic bid to the NCAA FCS playoffs (although a waiver could be granted).

Is N.C. A&T the next domino to fall?

North Carolina A&T State faithful felt a sense of abandonment as the Aggies joined the Big South in 2021, following Hampton, its former fellow MEAC member, giving the league two HBCUs.

When schools change conferences, dominoes tumble. So, what’s next for N.C. A&T? School administrators aren’t saying. A call to athletic director Earl Hilton was not returned, but Hilton said in an email that he might have some answers later this week.

Hilton told HBCU Gameday, however, that the reduction of football-playing schools in the Big South is “clearly something that’s on my mind right now.”

Over the weekend, people familiar with various HBCU administrations said N.C. A&T and Howard were mulling invitations from the CAA. Other scenarios had the MEAC and the Big South combining in an arrangement that would maintain a bid to the Cricket Celebration Bowl vs. the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champion.

Meanwhile, Norfolk State and Morgan State appear to be MEAC loyalists, but things could change quickly. Other MEAC football members include South Carolina State, North Carolina Central and Delaware State.

“Norfolk State University is a proud member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference,” Norfolk State athletic director Melody Webb said. “The university will continue our affiliation with the MEAC and is honored to partner with the seven institutions of higher learning that represent the conference.

“We support the advancement of HBCU athletics on all levels,” she said. “Collegiate sports are an extension of the HBCU experience. The more eyes on our product, the better the opportunities to promote the unique educational experiences that our institutions provide not only to our student-athletes, but to all students.”

Also, HBCU observers say schools such as Winston-Salem State and Virginia State, both members of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, could be in the mix for the MEAC. It’s a completely fluid situation, and no one can guess what the future HBCU football landscape might look like.

A new look for HBCU football

Texas Southern professor J. Kenyatta Cavil, a sports management and sports entertainment expert who does a weekly podcast on HBCU issues, said change is here to stay for HBCU athletics.

“We’re seeing the end of the traditional HBCU football experience of the past,” Cavil said. “What is emerging is a hybrid where some people believe they can cash in and others believe part of the old system can still work.”

It hardly makes sense for other HBCUs to follow Hampton, where president William R. Harvey, who will retire in July after 44 years in charge, has said he doesn’t look at his school as an HBCU. Clearly, most of the other HBCUs don’t dismiss their strong Black heritage.

Some Hampton students who commented late last week embrace that heritage. The students welcome opportunities to bring their schools more exposure and more revenue, but they miss their HBCU brothers and sisters.

“As a drum major, I feel like things weren’t as exciting when playing in the Big South,” said Ravid Frye, a senior music major from Hopewell, Virginia, “because, culturally, PWIs [predominantly white institutions] don’t typically understand HBCU band culture, but overall it was still a good chance to learn about how their bands operate.”

It was more of the same from Dasia Heard, a senior integrated biology major from Milford, Delaware. “There’s so much more excitement and interactions going on when we play games like Howard, North Carolina A&T and Norfolk,” Heard said. “I hope that when we get to the new conference, we get to play HBCU games.”

Deion Sanders’ $30 million impact at Jackson State

HBCU observers also discussed Jackson State coach Deion Sanders’ declaration late last year that the MEAC should close up shop and join the SWAC in one Division I super HBCU conference.

That approach would not solve the travel distance and student-athlete study time explanations that N.C. A&T and Hampton cited in leaving the MEAC. But Sanders and the SWAC, which received unprecedented TV exposure last season, seemed to prove that a strong HBCU conference can survive and thrive.

Plus, Grambling of the SWAC has hired former NFL coach Hue Jackson as its head coach, which should bolster the attention the league is getting.

Mississippi Today has reported that Sanders’ Tigers had an economic impact on the city of Jackson, Mississippi, of more than $30 million during the 2021 football season, nearly double the $16 million economic impact in 2019.

The Tigers drew more than 50,000 fans for the SWAC championship, more than 60,000 for a rivalry game against Alcorn State and helped bring nearly 49,000 to the Cricket Celebration Bowl where they lost to MEAC foe South Carolina State. In comparison, Pittsburgh and Michigan State drew 41,230 in the same venue, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, for the Peach Bowl.

So, a strong Black football league can work.

Limited HBCU success in predominantly white leagues

What is moving to a predominantly white conference supposed to achieve?

Tennessee State, which joined the Ohio Valley Conference in 1986, won conference football titles in 1998 and 1999. Its recent most prominent football exposure came when it hired former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George as its head football coach. George’s Tennessee State team plays an annual game in the Southern Heritage Classic against Sanders’ team, which Jackson State won 38-16 in September 2021.

Tennessee State won the OVC men’s basketball regular-season and tournament crowns in 1993 and the men’s tournament crown in 1994. But it hasn’t won a league title since.

Hampton, a former MEAC track powerhouse that produced Olympians, won men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track championships in the Big South in 2019. It hasn’t won additional league titles since.

Is N.C. A&T, which became the MEAC track powerhouse and producer of Olympians, following in that same path?

Aggies fans miss the MEAC

Students and fans at N.C. A&T say they miss the traditional HBCU football weekends, where they could fellowship, trash-talk and generally socialize with familiar foes who shared a similar culture.

The homecoming game – a Big South loss to Monmouth – did not have the same energy of past renditions of GHOE, the Aggies’ Greatest Homecoming on Earth, according to junior journalism major Alexis Black, co-president of the campus chapter of Associated Press Sports Editors and a cheerleader at N.C. A&T.

“When we played [N.C.] Central at home, I could feel the excitement; I could feel the crowd,” Black said.

“Then, at homecoming, when we played Monmouth, I felt nothing. The Hampton game was really fun, too, but when we played the white schools, we just didn’t know what to expect.”

So, are school administrators overselling to fans and students their reasons for moving to predominantly white conferences? The geographic footprint argument does not appear to be sound, such as when a MEAC school trades visits to Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, both in Florida, for visits to New Jersey (Monmouth), Pennsylvania (Robert Morris) and Florence, Alabama (North Alabama).

How does N.C. A&T recoup the Celebration Bowl payout, with savings in travel to Big South foes? The participating team’s payout is shared with the conference, with N.C. A&T receiving around $560,000 in cash and $100,000 in ticket sales after its last bowl appearance in 2019. That’s $2.5 million in cash over four appearances.

Add to that an additional $15 million in marketing and branding value each year for the Celebration Bowl participant, according to a MEAC audit.

Plus, each MEAC school, Celebration Bowl participant or not, receives a payout from the conference, something that reportedly does not exist in the Big South or the CAA.

Were any students part of the decisions when the brain trusts at N.C. A&T and Hampton decided to uproot their culture and take them to another land? Would N.C. A&T consider coming back home to the MEAC?

We’ll know more when the MEAC and N.C. A&T respond publicly about their intentions.

In the meantime, a couple of questions to ponder:

Is it necessary to assimilate in order to validate?

Can’t we just accept that Black is the new Black and monetize that?

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.