'Pick on Somebody Your Own Size'

Are the physical and emotional beatings that come with historically black colleges and universities competing against big-time football powers worth the financial incentive?

October 7, 2015
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Southern's Devon Gales is taken off the field after his injury against Georgia.

When Southern University’s football team played against the University of Georgia last month, few people -- if anyone -- expected the matchup to be a thrilling contest. “I’m not going to be politically correct,” Southern’s band director noted at the time. “It’s not going to be much of a game.”

Near the end of the third quarter, Devon Gales, a wide receiver at Southern, collided with a Georgia player who outsized him by 6 inches and 40 pounds. Gales’s head struck the kicker’s shoulder and he fell to the field, motionless. He suffered several fractures in his neck, broke a vertebra and remains hospitalized, unable to move anything below his waist.

Southern scored just 6 points against Georgia and lost the game by 42.

The serious injury to Gales is a relatively rare occurrence, but it put an exclamation point on a larger issue. Despite the physical and emotional beatings that can come with such pairings, small and less wealthy colleges of all kinds continue to play universities with big-time football programs because of the financial payouts and exposure that typically come with the thrashing. For cash-strapped historically black colleges and universities, that can be even more true.

“From a financial standpoint, they’re definitely worth it for HBCUs,” Mark Nagel, professor of sports and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina, said. “It’s a large paycheck and the players usually like the opportunity to play on television or in front of 80,000 people. At the same time, it is an automatic loss and there’s always risk of injury when another team’s players are so much stronger and faster. It does raise the question, ‘Is this what we’re really trying to foster when we talk about sportsmanship and college sports?’”

Every season, institutions with big-time football programs shell out millions of dollars to lower-level teams to fine-tune their performance before they enter conference play and to help improve their chances of being bowl eligible by padding their record with a few easy wins. Georgia paid $650,000 for the guaranteed win against Southern, as well as for a performance by its renowned marching band.

For HBCUs, whose budgets are dwarfed by those of institutions like Georgia, the money can be a welcome trade-off. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Southern spends about $9 million per year on its athletics programs. Georgia spends nearly $100 million.

Where teams at some historically black colleges were once able to compete with smaller programs like those in the Sun Belt Conference, Nagel said, even those institutions have begun playing HBCUs to provide an easy early-season win. Last month, Howard University started its season with a 49-0 loss to Appalachian State University.

The next weekend, Howard fell to Boston College, 76-0. Howard's and Boston College's coaches agreed to shorten the game's last two quarters by five minutes each. Officials at Howard declined to be interviewed for this article.

Combined, HBCU teams gave up nearly 500 points in the first week of the football season and scored fewer than 100. Morgan State University lost 63-7 to the Air Force Academy. Alcorn State University lost 69-6 to Georgia Institute of Technology. Grambling State University lost to the University of California at Berkeley, 73-14.

When playing fellow HBCU teams or other programs with similar financial and enrollment numbers, the results of the matchups are more even: Southern won 50-31 against Jackson State University. Grambling State beat Prairie View A&M University, 70 to 54. Howard lost to Norfolk State University, 15-12.

“In the U.S., we share a lot of cultural traditions and one of those is to ‘pick on somebody your own size,’” said Charles Clotfelter, a public policy and economics professor at Duke University who studies college athletics. “To some extent some of these matchups do seem to go against that. They verge on unfair fights and therefore they could be unseemly no matter what else is at stake. It’s not that anybody is cheating, but there’s an unsportsmanlike aspect to all of it.”

Some institutions and conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's wealthiest and most competitive level, do avoid playing smaller programs like those at historically black colleges and universities. The University of Notre Dame, for example, has never played a team in Division I’s less-competitive Football Championship Subdivision, and the Big Ten Conference discourages its members from playing FCS teams.

“It's like a junior college team playing against a high school team or a high school team playing against a JV team,” Jim Delany, the Big Ten’s commissioner, said in 2013. “We're just trying to create a better package that was more interesting to the fan, more interesting to television, more interesting to the players that you can recruit to.”

That mentality could become more common, Nagel said, as the strength of a season’s schedule is a factor in the newly created college football playoff. Postseason play used to be determined by using a combination of polls and computer formulas, but playing so-called cupcake opponents is now seen as a negative by the tournament’s selection committee.

Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Riverside, said such a move could be detrimental to HBCUs, which, even with the blowouts and occasional injury, view the games as a valuable marketing tool. When Grambling State lost to Berkeley last month, its marching band won a battle of the bands competition during halftime. The game was also accompanied by several events around the area promoting Grambling State.

Nationally televised games between two HBCU teams are increasingly rare, with some teams not being televised on a major channel at all unless they are playing a larger program. Grambling's football team will only appear on television one additional time this season, when it plays Southern in November.

“For many of these colleges, one game is not going to disrupt school pride or damage a player's psyche,” Comeaux, a Berkeley graduate whose mother went to Grambling State, said. “They know they’re probably not going to win, but it’s exposure and a chance to increase visibility for a smaller school. They’re also getting a strong financial package. It can be an opportunity for many of these teams that don’t generate revenue to actually generate revenue for their program, and possibly attract some students at the same time.”


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