At Minnesota’s Hibbing Community College, football stats tell a tale but, as surely as looking at rushing yards without passing could slant any analysis, here too are numbers most meaningful when read in formation:
- The average grade point average for football players at Hibbing over the past five years has been 1.81, compared to the 2.67 average boasted by students on Hibbing’s other six sports teams.
- 90 percent of Hibbing’s football players enroll in at least one remedial course – while the percentage of students on other teams doing remedial coursework ranges from 6 percent (golf) to 61 percent (men’s basketball).
- About 90 percent of the 63 football players come from out-of-state – from Michigan, Ohio, Florida, South Carolina, even Texas, the provost said – while by and large, the balance of Hibbing Community College’s 1,200-student population hails from, not surprisingly, the local community.
- Just 4 to 5 percent of individuals in that northeastern Minnesota community are people of color, said Ken Simberg, the provost – while the football coach estimates that the team’s African-American representation averages around 80 percent.
Hibbing’s administration took a good, hard look at those numbers and drew one obvious conclusion: Although the small college might sacrifice its diversity, and risk a serious hit on its enrollment figures, academics are paramount and football has got to go – at least for awhile. “We’re concerned that the players aren’t benefiting by being here, that academics isn’t a priority,” said Simberg, who explained that the administration has recommended a suspension and expects to make a final decision by next week. Two forums on the subject -- one announcing the deliberations to faculty, and another seeking public input -- were held last Tuesday and Thursday.
But another obvious conclusion that could be drawn is that these football players – largely out-of-state students who lack the grades and scores to get into four-year colleges – come to Hibbing because they see a place to play ball. Given their prior academic records and motivations for coming, their poor classroom performance is not surprising, and arguably for an open-access institution a situation worthy of greater intervention and stricter eligibility standards for athletes, not suspension.
"It sounds like Hibbing is blaming the student athletes for not doing the work as opposed to the system that sounds like it was set up to bring in very marginal students who overwhelmingly require that mediation," said Richard Lapchick, chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport . Suspending the team, Lapchick said, "seems counterproductive to ever having the possibility of having student athletes."
Yet, Hibbing’s administration argues that the status quo, with dozens of students coming to the college for love of the game and distaste for the classroom, has got to stop. Students are coming and going ill-prepared, first bound for Hibbing's classrooms, and then for the world of work, saddled with loans and little academic progress to show for them. And Simberg stressed that the opportunity for these students at Hibbing will always remain – in the academic sphere. “That’s where we want to see the importance placed.”
“I am recommending a suspension because I do think that we need to take the time to look at this from a lot of different angles,” he said. The length, or finality, of a potential suspension hasn't been determined yet. The program, if suspended, may not ever return, he said. Or it may return, at some undetermined point, fundamentally changed: “What changes can we make where we aren’t in the situation where we are now, that situation being that the majority of the students on our football program are not maintaining satisfactory academic progress according to our policy?”
Kurt Zuidmulder, the head football coach, said that students must complete a total of 24 credits with at least a 2.0 average to return to play sophomore year. Although only 5 of 63 players were sophomores this year, he said that’s a down year for a team with a 37 percent retention rate. “Basically, if you look at why these kids come here, yes they want to play football. . .but for one reason or another, possibly a low ACT score, poor grades, it stopped them from going to a four-year school after high school. I feel as a junior college, it’s our job to give those kids a second chance to get those grades and move on.”
“As recently as last year,” he added, “we had 16 of 18 sophomores that were given scholarship opportunities [to transfer to four-year schools] that they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t come here.” Without football, he said, most of these students wouldn’t be coming to Hibbing at all, and if football is their carrot, so be it. “I believe that football is the avenue and their motivating factor to get an education. Without this opportunity, I don’t see these kids making it a priority to work on their education,” he said. “If, through the positive efforts of not only the football program, but also the tutors, the counselors, and the advisors. . .if they use those avenues and come out of here with an education, that’s great.”
But academics aside, Hibbing’s football team has at times been a controversial presence in small-town Minnesota. When three current players and one former one were arrested in October in connection with the alleged gang rape of an 18-year-old high school senior in a college residence hall, it stirred memories of a town that has at times over the past 15 years been shaken by racial tensions and mistrust, as The Star Tribune reported. Among the incidents reported by the paper  are attacks against black athletes, racist threats and suspicions that players were guilty of rape. The out-of-state recruitment has been a source of tension not just at Hibbing, The Star Tribune reported, but also at nearby Mesabi and Vermillion community colleges.
Simberg stressed that the decision to potentially suspend the team is not a result of the alleged October rape. And while Zuidmulder said he doesn't know if the town’s racial tensions were a factor in setting the stage for the proposed suspension, he thinks the situation needs to be scrutinized.
Hibbing’s mayor, Rick Wolff, said the mostly white, 16,500-person town will suffer a big setback if the football players stop coming, as about 60 to 70 percent of the town’s diversity comes from the college. “If the football team is suspended, something will be lost,” he said. But ultimately, Wolff respects the administration’s responsibility to safeguard the college’s academics. “First and foremost, I think the college is an academic institution,” he said. “The number one concern that they have to have as administrators of that university is the academic performance of students. It’s supported by tax dollars, and if the people who are attending aren’t getting an adequate education, there’s a problem with it being funded by tax dollars.”