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MEAC commissioner challenges alumni to take ownership of their institutions

Dennis Thomas: ‘Let’s start sending our top-tier athletes back to HBCUs’

Entering his 15th year as commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Dennis Thomas knows better than most the hard issues affecting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). He explains to The Undefeated’s Mark W. Wright that alumni should put their money where their mouths are.

There is no sugarcoating the state of HBCUs: Our institutions are hurting. Nationwide, state funding continues to decline, and our athletic programs are under tremendous financial strain to balance their budgets.

I know most HBCUs have strong alumni support. I see them at games and hear from them throughout the year. They are vocal and full of pride. I applaud this. But our institutions need more than a vocal and proud alumni base to survive, they need consistent financial support. If you venture to an institution’s development office and ask for a list of alumni who have given $1,000 or more, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than 5,000 alumni who have done so. That’s hard to hear, but it’s fact. Despite the lack of donors at that level, our alumni – the same ones who are proud and love their schools – are prone to criticize, even though they have not earned the right to do so. Which is why I have accepted the opportunity by The Undefeated to set the record straight – and to educate.

Let me be clear: We need more alumni to be financially active at their respective institutions. I certainly don’t mean to lump all alumni in the same bucket. I know we have thousands of alumni nationwide who consistently support the affairs of their alma mater. But we have a small number carrying the larger load, and frankly, it’s gotten too heavy for the faithful few to carry.

We need to debunk the misconception that our institutions are self-supporting. Only 24 of 230 NCAA Division I public institutions meet the NCAA’s benchmark for self-sufficiency. By NCAA definition, self-sufficiency means an athletic department’s generated operating revenues — not counting money from student fees, university funding or direct government support — are at least equal to its total operating expenses, which is legalese for taking in more money than you spend.

It seems that our HBCU institutions’ boards of trustees, state legislators and elected officials continue to reduce the financial support of our institutions which, by all existing data, were underfunded for over a century. If our institutions were underfunded for over a century and the state keeps reducing funding, it looks like we are in a state of fait accompli.

Remember, our demise was predicted by some when HBCUs were founded. However, not only did we survive, we flourished. But it’s not all gloom and doom. We aren’t without solutions.

We – as a community – need a renewed commitment from African-American mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to reinvest in HBCUs by sending our best and brightest to our institutions. And, by “best and brightest,” I mean students and student-athletes.

Pause and listen to this stat: Currently, more than 50 percent of the revenue-generating sports for Division I, which is football and men’s basketball, are played by minority athletes. It seems to me that if we can redirect those talented student-athletes to our institutions, we would be able to compete at the highest level against the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame and the University of Southern California in football and the likes of Indiana, Duke and North Carolina in basketball. Our value would skyrocket and we would command, as a conference, as a Division I conference, significant revenue from media partners such as ESPN, FOX, CBS and NBC.

Billion-dollar multimedia rights are signed by the likes of the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC. These end-of-the-year revenue distributions go as high as $30 million per institution and our schools would be able to generate comparable revenue as well if we can redirect those talented student-athletes to our institutions. But convincing the parents of these top-tier student-athletes and the student-athletes’ coaches – most of whom are not minorities – that our institutions are just as equipped to develop our talent is our biggest hurdle. In a lot of cases, minority student-athletes don’t even have HBCUs on their list of schools to visit. HBCUs shouldn’t be a tough sell – because history tells us that we’ve done it. Down through the decades, all the way back to the beginning of the NFL and NBA, some of the games’ biggest stars came from minority institutions. But HBCUs are dogged by a negative misconception that the level of competition will somehow prevent our student-athletes from achieving the highest level. This is factually inaccurate.

Through the years, we have had individuals drafted, not only as No. 1 draft picks, but as top overall choices, particularly in the NFL. So to say that the level of competition prevents our student-athletes from making it to the NFL or NBA is simply not true.

I would need a whole separate commentary to list the names of former HBCU student-athletes who have achieved greatness – Hall of Fame status, even – at the professional level. We’re proud of that, and we’re not just talking about a bygone era. We hear the argument all the time: Athletes need to go to a larger institution, or a majority institution, to get exposed to the higher level of coaching and facilities. I submit to you, if you have the ability and can play, it doesn’t make any difference where you come from. That’s been proven. That’s not up for debate or argument. So, you can take that argument off the table. With these Taj Mahal facilities, the bottom line is: If you can’t play, those facilities are not going to help you be a player.

How many times do you hear stories of talented players at the larger institutions not panning out? Countless. Yet, they played at the highest level. HBCUs have had lower draft choices who’ve made it. We’ve had higher draft choices who’ve made it. We’ve had undrafted choices who’ve made it. History has shown that the minute someone says, “This is a top-flight talent,” it is assumed that the student-athlete has to go to a Power Five conference. They don’t think HBCUs can provide those opportunities, unfortunately. I vehemently and respectfully disagree with that notion.

I look to the past to have confidence in the future. If you would go back and ask all of the great coaches down through the years, in basketball, football and other sports at HBCUs, they’d tell you they never had enough to be successful. But they didn’t make excuses for why they could not be successful. They went about the business of taking what they had and succeeding with it. The great John McLendon coached basketball at many HBCUs. Edward Temple, the head women’s track coach at Tennessee State, didn’t have all the facilities he needed to have a world-class track program but still developed a world-class women’s track program. Everybody knows what Eddie Robinson did at Grambling State; his program sent many players to the NFL during the 1970s. John Merritt, from Tennessee State, Willie Jeffries, from South Carolina State, Earl Banks, from Morgan State … all of these individuals didn’t have all the facilities but they didn’t make excuses, and they got results. Why do I give that brief history lesson? The point is this: We have been doing more with less all of our lives. That’s in our DNA, and the same can be said about our presidents, chancellors, faculty and staff. They, too, didn’t have what they needed to be great researchers and scholars. They didn’t have all they needed to have a great institution, but they made a great institution anyway.

We as alumni have to take that same attitude, commitment and courage to continue to succeed moving forward. If we can somehow galvanize our own strengths, we can make our goals and objectives a reality. But we have to come together as a culture to say, “This is how we’re going to succeed.”

In the end, it simply is a matter of our own heritage, culture, believing in each other. And if we can send our best and brightest back to HBCUs, we will able to generate some significant return on our investment. This is where we start.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.