Lopsided scores are not unusual in college football, particularly when a weaker opponent goes up against a gridiron powerhouse. Still, what took place on Saturday in the “Big House” in Ann Arbor, Michigan reveals more than just a competitive advantage. For the sake of a big payday, Division I-AA historically Black Delaware State University traveled to the legendary University of Michigan stadium to play the Division I-A Wolverines. No one expected Delaware State to win but its losing 63-6, and Michigan rolling up a record 727 yards of total offense, came as somewhat of a surprise. After all, football is football, but Delaware State was mauled to the point of it being unrecognizable as a football team.
The score masks an even greater problem. Intercollegiate athletics on historically Black college campuses are suffering. No longer do schools like Delaware State, Grambling, Florida A & M, Morgan State and Southern automatically attract and retain the elite of high school football players. Once campuses such as Michigan, Alabama, Penn State, Notre Dame, USC and other perennial powers opened their doors to Black athletes, a literal power drain took place on HBCU campuses. Starved for players and for cash to maintain football programs against other pressing needs, some of these schools have resorted to what are literally suicide missions in taking on Division I-A schools for the sake of a big payday. Even if it means surrendering a home game against an opponent that could have provided a more competitive contest for the Black college program, as it did for Delaware State.
The running line about these Black college programs taking on much larger schools is that it helps make the HBCU more competitive. Hardly so. While the university receives a nice check, the players on the field are humiliated, the legacy of Black college football takes a hit, and alumni are left scratching their head and wondering why. It is particularly frustrating knowing that schools such as Michigan have athletic budgets, more precisely budgets for the football program, that rival the budgets of multiple academic programs on many Black college campuses. With the exception of a “bowl classic,” the number of people in Michigan’s stadium for one game far exceeds the total number of fans most Black college teams will play before at home during a four-year span. The resource disparity alone makes these contests utterly ridiculous and shameful.
In many ways, the disparity on the field mirrors the overall disparity between HBCUs and traditionally white institutions. Public Black colleges like Delaware State still are dramatically underfunded compared to their white peers, and lack many of the amenities found on larger campuses. While some states have increased support for public HBCUs, the gap is so wide and the number of years of underfunding so long, that Black colleges are still playing catch-up. What is true on the academic landscape, is true on the competitive playing field of college sport. What those Delaware State players witnessed walking into the Michigan bowl, which seats and regularly holds 100,000 fans for home games was an athletic environment that rivals a professional football franchise. There is nothing, on any HBCU campus in the nation, which rivals it. Still, HBCUs are a national treasure for their ability to produce graduates who make their mark in our nation and internationally.
This is not a knock against football programs at historically Black colleges. Rather, it is a plea for them to return to their roots, compete against each other and similar sized opponents, and rely on their unique history and track record for graduating Black students as their strongest recruitment tools. There is no shame in losing but there is something unseemly about pocketing a check, no matter the good intent, and compromising the time, talent, and dignity of young athletes who deserve better.