Alcorn State yesterday announced its new head football coach, former University of Memphis defensive coordinator Jay Hopson. Hopson, the first white head coach in the history of the university and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, was chosen in part because of his recruiting philosophy as it relates to the NCAA's academic progress rating system.
Hopson's hire is the sign of a changing reality for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and academic preparedness of their student athletes. HBCUs are equipped to empower students across a diverse spectrum of learning and achievement to succeed and leave their campuses with degrees. But somewhere between integration and the cultural phenomenon of athletic entitlement, many black athletes became numb to competitive approaches in the classroom. Schools of all sizes and athletic budgets now feel the PR pressure to graduate these athletes or face post-season bans, reduction in scholarships or practice time, or expulsion from NCAA Division I membership.
And where larger PWI's feel the PR pressure of academic success in athletics, many HBCUs know that the pipes are on the verge of bursting. The NCAA last month acknowledged that historically black colleges and universities face unique challenges in academic support for student athletes, ruling to relax penalties for "low-resourced" schools falling short of the annual academic progress rate and salvaging the 2012 post season hopes of football programs at Southern and Jackson State, among others.
"We have an obligation to work with HBCUs and limited-resource institutions to make sure their student-athletes have every opportunity to be successful academically," NCAA President Mark Emmert said. "It's important to look at a variety of options and be as deliberative as we can to ensure our actions facilitate success, not limit it."
Acknowledging its punitive role in the growing crisis of academic resources at historically black colleges and universities was a relatively small step by the NCAA, an association largely driven by its billion-dollar appeal to the masses through its service as a minor league system for the NFL and NBA. But if the NCAA genuinely wants to honor its mission of ensuring academic integrity for student-athletes across America, it will do for the low-resourced schools, and HBCUs specifically, what it has done for power conferences and their members through the power of its marketing machine:
Allocate more money to HBCUs for retention and academic development systems.
The NCAA must be willing to invest in what it claims to hold most dear; the desire for student-athletes to use athletic scholarships as a springboard to any professional career, sports and otherwise. Morally, the association is in touch with the moral issue of economic disparities between power conferences and mid-major-to-lower division counterparts. The NCAA regularly holds development conferences and training for a variety of college athletics executives and officials in fundraising, sports information, physical training and other athletic departments. If you want to run a better program, the NCAA makes available the chance to learn how to do it.
But issues of retention and academic performance at HBCUs go far beyond competency and training, and often come back to the ageless discussion on what to do when you don't have the appropriate staffing, facilities, technology or accounting systems to match the creativity and ingenuity that has spared more HBCUs from being expelled from Division I competition for low APR. HBCUs are not blameless in their struggle; many operate unrealistically at the Division I level without vision or creativity for improving their athletic product or its profitability. Most should legitimately consider moving to Division II and competing for national titles while saving a lot of money and figuring out how to better engage their fans and community.
Those HBCUs don't deserve the NCAA's help.
But for those programs that are competing and winning in conference and in spots against comparable mid-major opponents, the NCAA should concede the moral point and the financial resources to reward HBCUs competing well and actively working to graduate their student-athletes. Hampton University President William R. Harvey has advocated for more money from the NCAA to match a recent increase in academic performance standards; an unpopular view but one that would add pressure to the NCAA to even the playing field between power conferences and mid-majors.
The NCAA isn't at fault for what HBCUs are lacking: history, race culture and apathy from alumni and surrounding corporate communities make for a strange mix of struggle for HBCU sports. But the NCAA can help in erasing the problem for good by legislating more support for historically black colleges and their athletes, particularly black male athletes. The NCAA should partner with these schools not out of a racial sense of obligation, burden or pity, but because the whole of its mission requires it to do more for their student athletes and member schools. Where billions are annually earned by two revenue-generating sports and their associated postseasons, what's a couple of hundred million to make HBCUs equitable with their predominantly white counterparts?
HBCUs, like all colleges and universities, should have the right to recruit dumb jocks of all races and backgrounds without punishing fans or product for their immaturity and resulting low APR for the program. But HBCUs are equipped to take dumb black jocks and prepare them culturally and academically for the challenges that lie ahead when the games are over and the diploma is earned. The schools best serving a unique higher education mission and a population largely forgotten in the building of the American system of higher learning deserve better than what they are getting.
The NCAA can be an active participant in changing the landscape of how we view, educate and position for success athletes of the future. It all depends on if athletic inequity is a matter of acknowledgement, or improvement.
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