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HBCU Education

Putting safety first leads to cancellation of HBCU fall sports

HBCU schools are moving faster than PWI conferences in reaction to a pandemic that disproportionately hurts Black communities

The disproportionately harsh effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the Black community is driving the decisions historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have made as fall classes approach.

While much attention was paid to the four largest conferences of HBCUs canceling fall sports, an equally important delay was taking place at those and other HBCU schools — postponements of reporting dates for students.

On July 20, the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) became the latest HBCU conference to announce it was postponing all fall competition and championships in football, men’s and women’s cross country, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.

The SWAC move came after decisions by the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) to delay and move some sports to the spring. Also in the wake of those decisions, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge and the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta were canceled.

HBCUs have moved sooner than many predominantly white institutions (PWIs). As of Tuesday, only four of the nearly three dozen Division I and II leagues with PWI members had followed the lead of the four HBCU conferences. Among the Power 5 schools, the Big Ten moved to a conference-only football schedule on July 9, with the Pac-12 doing the same the next day.

The SEC, ACC and Big 12 have not made any changes, nor have the Group of 5 conferences that make up the rest of the FBS level. Of the FCS conferences, the Ivy League postponed football and the other fall sports on July 8, the Patriot League did so on July 13 and the Colonial Athletic Association on July 17 (one day after the MEAC). The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference is the only Division II conference besides the CIAA and SIAC to shut down, doing so six days afterward.

Students’ safety is the key issue

The safety of everybody from students to faculty to staff to employees to visitors is paramount in each school’s decision, said Morgan State athletic director Edward Scott. “What we’re focused on every minute is what is the price you can put on exposing our students to these kinds of things,’ ” he said.

But the domino effect of football’s absence raises financial concerns for several schools. Out go the “money” games against teams from Power 5 conferences, as well as from smaller fellow FCS opponents. Also out are the “classic” games, including a pair of November in-state rivalry games: the Bayou Classic between Grambling and Southern at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans; and the Florida Classic in Orlando, Florida, between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman.

Including the annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta, there were no fewer than seven “classic” games planned for September involving upper-level HBCU programs at locations such as Detroit’s Ford Field; Miami Garden, Florida’s Hard Rock Stadium; Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee; and Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

At the Division II level, there was the storied Morehouse-Tuskegee rivalry, which was set to move to Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, until Morehouse — and then the conference — called off the season. The schools were to split $500,000 for playing.

For Morehouse, that will mean more furloughs, pay cuts and layoffs, primarily to make sure it could honor the scholarships of every fall sports athlete.

“It’s not millions,” Morehouse president David Thomas said, “but for an institution with our budget, a quarter of a million is still a quarter of a million. This is where we’re willing to bear some pain, and that pain cannot be lessened at the expense of our athletes.”

Alcorn State was to receive $475,000 for an early September game at Auburn, and Morgan State $450,000 for a trip to Northwestern in November. The Division II schools and several HBCU National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics programs also had paycheck games that will not happen now.

All of that was taken into consideration, several school and university officials insist. But the money didn’t matter as much as the safety of students and others in campus communities, said CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. No single institution tried to make a case for itself and its plight over its fellow members, she said.

“And that’s why I love being part of this conference [CIAA]. One for all, all for one. What is it that we can do as a conference to advance and support the CIAA? That’s our priority, all of us.” — CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams

Thus, when the CIAA schools knew they had to make a decision like Morehouse, they coordinated with Morehouse’s conference, the SIAC, and announced the end of fall sports on the same date, July 9.

“And that’s why I love being part of this conference,” McWilliams said. “One for all, all for one. What is it that we can do as a conference to advance and support the CIAA? That’s our priority, all of us.”

The next priority HBCUs have to navigate is what happens with sports once the fall semester begins, whether athletes are on campus or not. Will they be able to practice, work out, meet or have facilities available?

“So we have some work to do to get an understanding of what our activities can be,” McWilliams said.

At some point, winter and spring sports that were called off in March when the pandemic struck will begin again. Unless they don’t, especially if conditions worsen due to COVID-19.

“When the students walk out of practice, they go to the same dining halls as everyone else, and take the same classes and sleep in the same dorms,” Thomas said.

And that raises the same question for him in winter and spring 2021: “Could I keep my athletes as safe as I could the rest of my students?”

Leadership at Morehouse

Morehouse College beat much of American higher education to the punch in announcing Monday that it will go online-only this fall. The college did the same with football and its fall sports last month. The reasons were obvious.

“The uniqueness for us is the intensity of the impact,” Thomas told The Undefeated. “Nearly every historically Black college is around 90% tuition-dependent. [For] the families in our community, the economy is going to come back the slowest.”

Morehouse made its decision about going online based on the fast rise in cases in Georgia, but, as Thomas noted in his announcement, it wasn’t just the school’s home state that spurred the move. Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University joined Morehouse on Monday in that move.

“Many of our target enrollment areas are facing outbreaks,” his letter stated. “And as families use their summer vacation to travel both locally and out of state, Morehouse could not guarantee the well-being of our community for in-person instruction.”

Every state within the footprint of the HBCU universe can claim that. Grambling president Richard Gallot said last week that while the rise in cases in Louisiana was the motivating factor in pushing back the start of classes, “in addition, we have a third of our students come from outside the state. It’s not enough just to evaluate the pandemic from a state level, or even a regional level. It’s a national and international crisis.”

While Grambling has not gone all-online, Gallot said, students have been offered the option of all-online classes. Some 750 students took that option in the first two days after its July 6 announcement, he said.

Other fall plans gaining increasing approval are early conclusions to the fall semester, or early conclusions to in-person classes. In April and May, when schools were postponing or canceling graduation ceremonies, many announced then that the upcoming semester would conclude in late November in anticipation of what was then predicted as a second wave of COVID-19 and the annual flu season striking simultaneously.

For example, taking two large public HBCUs: Part of Grambling’s plan unveiled earlier this month was the conclusion of the semester on Nov. 25. Morgan State announced in June it would end in-person classes on that date, and continue with online classes until finals in December.

“Many of our target enrollment areas are facing outbreaks. And as families use their summer vacation to travel both locally and out of state, Morehouse could not guarantee the well-being of our community for in-person instruction.” — Morehouse president David Thomas

Preparing for semesters heavily dependent on online courses raises the same issues that complicated the transition at the end of last semester: students who did not have equipment or internet access to allow them to take classes. “The challenges they had then, many still have today,” Gallot said, adding that while his school invested in technology in recent years that eliminated much of that problem for Grambling students, several other schools aren’t to that level yet.

Overall, the plans that have been put in place at HBCUs in the last two to three weeks have changed from the ones made in June, which are different from the ones made in May.

Said Scott of the rapid changes his university and other MEAC members have seen: “In a way, we’re building a plane as we fly it.”

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.