Fervent electricity engulfs the atmosphere in and around Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as the picturesque skyline of downtown Atlanta looms through the floor-to-ceiling window, in the northeast corner of this $1.4 billion structural masterpiece. The anticipation apexes. Images of the ravenous student sections are displayed above on the innovative five story, 360-degree, high-definition video halo board. The wait is over. The drum major signals the trumpets and the opening melodies of ‘Swag Surfin’ reverberate through the stadium. Fans promptly begin to sway in unison from side-to-side, as pregame introductions for this monumental game commence.
Its April 6, 2020. The NCAA will crown a Men’s Division 1 Basketball Champion on this night. Since the inception of this championship game in 1939, no historically black college or university has competed in it, until this groundbreaking night. And this HBCU basketball team, is no Cinderella, rather a juggernaut. Led by 3 future 1st round NBA draft picks, who were McDonald’s High School All-Americans, this team steamrolled through the regular season and blasted its way into college basketball’s showcase game. Indulge and let your mind go there.
Now, allow me to submit why this dream matters.
$28 million. It’s the average NCAA Power 5 Conference (ACC, BIG 10, BIG 12, PAC 12, SEC) payout to each of their respective member schools, based on 2014-15 fiscal year financials. This figure excludes each school’s individual media rights, merchandising, and ticket revenue. It’s merely their share of conference revenues. The payout is only a pixel of the financial picture, for these Power 5 programs, but it still eclipses gross revenue of all 4 HBCU athletic conferences combined. So pick any Power 5 school, and you have an actual example of one institution raking in more sports revenue, than all 49 institutions that make up those HBCU athletic conferences, combined. Major college athletics have become a booming billion-dollar industry, while HBCU athletics operate with nominal resources.
Football and basketball are the premium fuels on which the NCAA machine runs. And as we consume collegiate athletics, across a myriad of platforms, who do we see scoring touchdowns and dropping buckets? Primarily, African-American student-athletes. Yet, during the 2012-13 fiscal year, the CIAA, which began as the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1912, the oldest African-American athletic conference in the United States, operated under a $1.7 million deficit. This is the “cruel irony” that Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference commissioner, Gregory Moore, was referring to during a session at the 2014 SIAC Media Day. “African-American male athletes at power conferences are, to some degree, being depended upon to drive the economic inequity between those conferences and HBCU athletic programs,” Moore said. In 2014, the SIAC was able to payout a paltry $2,000 to each of its 14 members, after operating under six-figure deficits in preceding years. Yes, CIAA and SIAC schools, compete in NCAA Division 2 athletics, which do not have mass commercial appeal. But, HBCU athletic programs at the Division 1 level, face similarly ominous circumstances. In 2012-13, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), which has 13 member schools, netted $445,000, after grossing $7.7 million in revenue. The Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC), comprised of 10 schools, ran a deficit of $258,000, after grossing $6.2 million in revenue.
As if those alarming disparities were not telling enough, Power 5 conference commissioners earn anywhere from $2-$4 million in salary and bonuses. The top-tier Power 5 coach salaries can get as high as $5-$8 million. This includes those who have been fired for performance, but still collect their remaining $5 million combined salary from their last 2 jobs, in de facto unemployment payments, see Charlie Weiss. Even senior associate staff salaries eclipse the net revenues of the 4 HBCU athletic conferences combined. Millions of dollars permeate every level of big college sports, while HBCU athletic conferences and administrators watch from outside the Power 5 prism.
Before the integration of schools in the United States during the 1950’s, many of the nation’s top athletes, could be found on ‘the yard’ at various HBCU’s. ESPN Films profiled the early success of black college basketball in ‘Black Magic‘, a 4-hour documentary, that aired in 2008. The documentary underscored how despite being ultra-talented, black college basketball teams were prohibited from competing at the highest level, the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. This exclusion kept scores of great athletes in the shadows and severely hindered their chances of playing professionally. As integration got underway, predominantly white institutions (PWI’s), began to poach supremely talented black players away from HBCU’s, with promises of grandeur and the exposure of playing in the major tournaments. This initiated a catastrophic collapse of HBCU athletics over the last 50 years, and today’s outlook remains bleak.
How do we calibrate the scales and redistribute resources?
An influx of elite talent in HBCU athletics.
Simply put, we need High School All-American athletes to enroll and play at HBCU’s again. The limitations that led to the mass exodus of elite talent, are no longer detrimental to one’s professional prospects. As mentioned earlier, the MEAC and SWAC are Division 1 conferences, with each owning an automatic bid, to partake in March Madness. Once in the Big Dance, the stage and spotlight, belong to the players. The reigning two-time NBA MVP, Steph Curry, and CJ McCollum, are recent examples of how strong performances in the Big Dance, can catapult players into the NBA. All-Star guard Damian Lillard, starred at Weber State, but never played in the NCAA Tournament. He did, however, average nearly 25 points per game, during his final season, and was selected 6th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. And I never saw Damian Lillard play one college basketball game.
Today, the right people find talent, regardless of the locale. Today, power lies with players, like never before. Top high school players have cult followings, due to national exposure and social media. Schools need players far more than players need any particular school. Imagine the explosion of media coverage around HBCU athletics, when the first All-American high school athletes descend on campuses. New revenue from corporate sponsors and media rights would revitalize HBCU’s, along with the communities, in which, they are pillars. This will yield new facilities, advanced athletic performance programs, more scholarships, increased enrollment, and higher salaries for African-American coaches and athletic administrators. Most importantly, the ripple effect will exponentially boost HBCU pride, in a time where you can regularly find them as the butt of many Twitter jokes, or worse, decreased state funding, which threatens their continued existence.
The impact of top flight African-American athletes choosing HBCU’s over the usual powerhouses, would be far and away greater than protesting the national anthem. The most effective protests throughout history, are ones that disrupt revenue and social norms. But this isn’t about protest, its about a dream.
Again, let your mind go to April 6, 2020. You swag surfed. You cheered. And the game ends with a HBCU being crowned National Champion. Back on the yard, during the ensuing campus celebration, the cameras capture young African-American men and women gathering to gleefully celebrate. Greeks will stroll on this night. There will be smiles, laughter, and more dancing. No riots. No looting. No black-on-black crime. Instead, the true essence of the African-American community will be on display for all to see. And its been here all along, in the shadows, on HBCU campuses across the country.
A dream for the culture that uses sports to transcend sports, deferred, no longer.