The football program at historically black Grambling State University has seen better days. After all, Grambling was where Eddie Robinson became the winningest coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I history. Grambling is also where Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams and more than 100 other former and current National Football League players spent their collegiate years.
Today, however, the Grambling football program is in the midst of a mutiny. Players are fed up with deplorable working (yes, working) conditions, and their complaints, if true, describe an athletic program not only unable to provide basic accommodations, but one that is likely breaking the law. Players describe mold and mildew in the locker rooms, unsafe workout equipment, and uncut grass on the practice field. They also complain of having to buy their own Gatorade and taking bus trips to far-flung away games, one totaling 1,500 miles round-trip. But most damning is a charge that “several players” have contracted staph infections because of poorly cleaned uniforms.
As a result, players have flat-out refused to practice or attend team meetings, and, this past weekend, they refused to play rival Jackson State University. It was the first regular season forfeiture in the history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference — made worse by the fact that it was Jackson’s homecoming. And in the midst of it all, two coaches, including Williams, have been fired in a span of five weeks amid squabbles and power struggles with upper administration.
For years, Grambling, like many other colleges and universities, has poured millions of dollars from its operating budget to support its under-resourced athletic program. This is in the face of other glaring needs, like student aid. The roughly $3 million that Grambling has sunk into its athletic program each year could fund more than 500 full scholarships, a much better use for a university where 82 percent of full-time students qualify for Pell Grants. In addition, Grambling has seen its state funding decline from almost $32 million in 2008 to about $19 million in 2012.
The stunning fall of the once-vaunted Grambling football program is about more than Grambling. Colleges all over the country are sponsoring athletics they simply cannot afford, and many of them are doing so amid shameful cuts in state higher education funding. The urge to do so is particularly strong among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that were once the nation’s football powerhouses.
Prior to integration, the nation’s top black players attended HBCUs. With alumni like Deacon Jones, Walter Peyton and Jerry Rice, HBCUs have been training grounds for the some of the best players in NFL history. These programs also boasted some of college football’s greatest coaches. When Joe Paterno passed Eddie Robinson on the all-time wins list (a distinction later stripped as part of the NCAA’s Sandusky sanction), he acknowledged Robinson and Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither as “two of the greatest people we’ve ever had in college football.”
It is the tireless longing for a return to the glory years that drives the importance that HBCUs place on athletics, especially football. Unlike colleges that see football as merely a means of garnering publicity and attracting students, HBCUs often see football as an essential link to their history and greatness.
There was a time when propping up these programs with operational funds provided a convincing façade of stability. But declining revenue trends and a burgeoning movement of athlete activism have rendered accounting tricks less effective at shielding the harsh realities of athletic profligacy. Grambling is the most shocking example of these realities, but it is not the only HBCU, or college, in general, struggling to keep its athletic program afloat.
Last month, ESPN introduced a highlight feature warning, “This next part of SportsCenter may be unsuitable for some.” The tongue-in-cheek heads-up referenced three of the weekend’s games in which HBCUs got outscored 207-13. Each was playing in a so-called "guarantee game" — one in which it faced a “guaranteed” humiliating defeat in return for an appearance fee. That weekend, Bethune-Cookman University received $450,000 to get manhandled by Florida State University 54-6; Florida A&M University received $900,000 to get walloped by Ohio State 76-0; and Savannah State received $375,000 from the University of Miami to get trounced 77-7.
For many under-resourced colleges, guarantee games have become the preferred means of generating quick revenue. Florida A&M’s most recent athletic budget lists these games as the second largest source of revenue. But these games come with a price, as they feed into perceptions of HBCU inferiority and put players in the role of sacrificial lambs. Guarantee games have become such an embarrassment for all involved that the Big Ten is discouraging them, and there are rumblings that other conferences will follow suit. So there is hope that this perverse gravy train will soon end.
In order to survive, under-resourced colleges must adopt substantive reforms that transcend short-term stopgaps. One of the most significant reforms would be leaving Division I for Division II. Such a drop would be a considered an insult at many institutions, but it could be a particularly attractive and necessary option for HBCUs.
Division I sports, even at the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level at which HBCUs play, are expensive. FCS schools are required to sponsor at least 14 varsity sports. The vast majority of these sports will net no revenue. It should be no surprise that no FCS athletic program, HBCU or not, turns a profit — and the programs that break even do so only after large institutional subsidies as high as 90 percent. In 2010, the median revenue for FCS institutions was $3.3 million against expenses of more than $13 million.
On the Division II level, the median expenses for football colleges and universities are about $5 million — less than half the FCS median. Colleges are only required to sponsor 10 sports. The downside of Division II sports, however, is on the revenue side, with the median being only $624,000. But low revenue is not destiny. HBCUs would bring to Division II uncommonly strong fan bases.
There are 10 HBCUs at the FCS level with average attendance that would place them in the top 5 among Division II football programs; others, including Grambling, would be in the top 10. The roots of strong HBCU fan support already exist at the Division II level. Six of the top 10 Division II teams in average attendance are HBCUs, and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which is made up of HBCUs, is by far the top conference in attendance.
Given their cloistered conference alignments, Division I HBCUs tend to play each other, a routine that has fostered strong rivalries. And if they joined their Division II counterparts, historic rivalries could be rekindled. Florida A&M and Division II Tuskegee University enjoyed a passionate rivalry dating back to 1941, but have not played since 1996 because of restrictions on out-of-division games. The same divisional politics ended the yearly tilt between archrivals North Carolina A&T and Winston-Salem State University (WSSU).
In 2009, WSSU became the first school in NCAA history to return to Division II after beginning the transition up to Division I. Citing "no rational way" of funding the transition, university officials aborted the plan after four years. Three years later, WSSU played in the Division II national championship game and was able to balance its athletics budget, even though it is contending with state disinvestment and still paying down deficits from its Division I foray. WSSU is ranked 16th in attendance, so while the move back down to Division II may have disappointed some, its fans have not abandoned the program.
With the likelihood of above-average game attendance, HBCUs would likely generate above average revenue at the Division II level. But even if HBCUs only experience typical Division II outcomes, there would still be less red ink to clear than if they remained at the FCS level. It is for these reasons that HBCUs must, en masse, abandon Division I profligacy for Division II sustainability.
Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheEdLawProf.