No relationship can work when two partners regularly lie to each other about their ability to meet the needs of the relationship.
That’s the cycle that the NCAA and historically black Division I member schools have been on for several decades now, and the rocky relationship is only getting worse in front of neighbors and friends, despite their best efforts to put a good face on it.
Earlier this month, the NCAA announced that it planned to engage HBCUs and other low-resource institutions with focus groups and surveys to figure out how they could be of better help to keeping black colleges out of the news for failure in Academic Progress Rate. This was months after they knew that several HBCUs would again be banned from the postseason, a spring tradition unlike any other among black college communities.
Most HBCU sports insiders knew in the fall that schools like Southern, Morgan State and Florida A&M would face stiff penalties for poor retention and graduation rates among student athletes. What we didn’t know is how stiff the penalties would be, and if the NCAA would have any sympathy for the persistent HBCU struggle to make sure athletes are, percentage-wise, two to three times better at being students than the entire student body, while remaining athletically competitive.
The NCAA knows all about HBCU troubles, and knows that it long ago triple-jumped over the line of overt racism when it comes to punishing schools evenly and fairly for violating organizational policy. Schools like Syracuse and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill made millions last month in March Madness in spite of massive scandals in academic fraud and non-compliance.
North Carolina A&T and Alcorn State however, schools which will never see the limelight or payout of the Final Four, are banned. And the NCAA response is to survey HBCU executives whom have logged thousands of hours in front of NCAA infractions committees, compiled thousands of pages of reports and have spent millions in NCAA grant money to spackle compliance issues at a few of the more egregiously offending schools to find out what is going wrong.
The NCAA knows exactly what’s wrong with their rules, the public governance structure of many of their Division I HBCU members, and how it all creates for a publicly embarrassing set of talking points. But the NCAA won’t fix it, in part, because exemptions for HBCUs makes for more opportunistic loophole expeditions from power conference members.
And that would be honorable, except that the NCAA makes exemptions all the time for any schools which serve the best interests of NCAA revenue and exposure goals. And regrettably, this is where the NCAA and some member HBCUs get along perfectly; both are willing to accept the negative press so long as the money keeps coming in.
For most HBCUs, what does a postseason ban really mean? On one end, banned schools get dragged through their local media, coaches and parents receive a bad signal when it comes to recruiting, and sponsorship of HBCU athletics becomes that much more of a difficult sell to local businesses and corporations.
But HBCUs will still receive a majority of athletic scholarship support from DI affiliation, they have an easy out of selling a bunch of reserved postseason tickets fans won’t buy, and they don’t bear the expense of long-distance travel. And because fans will only support HBCU athletics in spurts regardless of postseason appearances real or hoped for, seemingly, there’s no real penalty for APR compliance or oversight.
But when you look at the connections between the NCAA and accreditation, and you realize that managing the fiscal and operational structure of sports is a core principle of the same, you reach a conclusion we all know is true, but rarely want to admit. NCAA Division I athletics is little more than an extension of the large, publicly-supported, predominantly white institutional vision of higher education. It is an association designed to help mostly large state schools market themselves, create business, generate revenue and to close gaps between commerce and education under the umbrella of athletics.
Unless the school is Alabama, USC, Notre Dame or Texas, very few schools are making substantial money from athletics — they mostly break even or run slight deficits. For HBCUs, the trend is the same minus a few hundred million annually. Dozens of power conference schools are realizing that they don’t need the NCAA imprint to grow this mission, and are positioning to soon create their own association with television and digital broadcasting rights, their own corporate partners, and their own rules on amateurism to suit the corporate bottom line.
HBCUs never belonged in the equation, and get by today on a lot of white guilt and black stubbornness. The more that HBCUs try to force our way into this model, without the dozens of legislative allies, hundreds of thousands of alumni and millions of dollars it requires to actually compete and do business, we’re only doing ourselves and our surrounding communities a disservice by continuing to play second chair in the NCAA’s concert of lies.
You can bet that the NCAA would like nothing more than for all HBCUs to compete at Division II or in the NAIA so that they could be rid of the annual farce of compassion for schools which are being killed by their own state governments in appropriations and support. Because sports is the biggest and most obvious symptom of an HBCU model in desperate need of recalibration, the NCAA bears much of the criticism when the wheels fall off in compliance and competitive disparity.
The NCAA bears no responsibility for legislative attacks on black colleges. It has nothing to do with the best black athletes refusing to attend HBCUs, and has no say in why alumni don’t buy tickets to games outside of homecoming and big rivalries.
Conversely, the NCAA doesn’t force HBCUs to ignore the sports where we actually have talent and are nationally competitive, like bowling, golf and baseball. It doesn’t limit our vision to see that where football is dying, soccer and lacrosse could soon become rich pools in recruiting top-caliber athletes who could actually meet APR standards.
The NCAA-HBCU relationship is one where both sides need to stop lying to each other. The NCAA shouldn’t act like we’re more than a second-string mistress in its business and marketing objectives, and HBCUs shouldn’t act like we care about NCAA compliance and oversight.
And both sides need to stop acting like a relationship that died more than 40 years ago, has the chance to be alive and well into the future.