OPINION: The racism in college football that we do not talk about

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Although we know racism is there, few people talk about it. Now and then old-timers will talk about the good old days of Black college football, when it produced players like Willie Richardson, Deacon Jones, Steve McNair, Vincent “Undertaker” Brown, Jerry Rice, Mike Singletary, and Walter Payton. But that is as far as it goes. It is as if with the desegregation of the colleges, everything is fine.

A logical question that should be asked is where are such stellar players today? Why are so few of them on Black college campuses? Why are Black college football programs at such a low ebb? Why are they seen in such a dim light? At the same time, why are so many Black football enthusiasts enchanted by the programs at Alabama, LSU, Southern Cal, and even Ole Miss and Mississippi State? Perhaps, we may lose a few friends for saying so, but a major problem is the power of racism.

Prior to the mid-1960s, top Black college football players were at Tennessee State, FAMU, Grambling, Southern, Jackson State, Alcorn, North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State, and other HBCUs. Once the federal courts struck down segregation, however, the predominately white colleges began “buying” these star Black players. They bought them through scholarship money and “under the table” money. State legislatures and boards of trustees provided much more to the white colleges than to the Black ones, enabling those colleges to recruit more of the top athletes and to provide them with larger scholarships. This was often buttressed by jobs and other benefits to the relatives of the Black recruits and by white donors shelling-out “goodies” to the players. Furthermore, players were often sold on the idea that their chances of being drafted by the pros would be enhanced by playing at the white colleges. The media continues to help promote that half-truth even by prioritizing the reporting of Ole Miss and Mississippi State’s game scores and developing more favorable stories on their programs. 

In large part because of the “generational wealth” that has been built-up by these white colleges, their programs now have enough money to provide their players with the best of equipment and facilities, to hire many more “position” coaches to help develop the players that they recruit, and to retain large enough coaching staffs to monitor their play on the field. Additional money keeps pouring in from state legislatures, wealthy donors, television revenues, and from paraphernalia and ticket sales.

It is totally ridiculous that today many Black colleges are so poorly funded until they subject their players to risk and their programs to humiliation by playing colleges far out of their leagues in order to secure additional funding. They do not have the generational wealth nor contemporary generous revenue streams. Changing the public funding patterns, that is, reversing who gets what from the public pool, would be a start in eliminating the impact of racism in college football.

A second mechanism that feeds the widening racial gap between the colleges is the “transfer portal” that enables players to leave one football program for another as if they are professional players selling their skills rather than students who are trying to get an education at a school that best meets or matches their academic aspirations. This mechanism puts Black colleges at a further disadvantage, while even obscuring the purpose of college for both the students and their parents. The transfer portal is an additional way in which racism can and does manifest itself to the detriment of HBCUs. 

A third factor in reversing the process has to do with who coaches the players. It is asinine to think that a white coach who is racist is concerned about what is best for the individual Black players on the team that he coaches. Yet, the vast majority of the white college coaches are individuals who have worked and been reared in racist environments. A few months ago, we pointed to Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville as an example. For years he coached Black players and apparently did not become a racist after he left coaching. Based upon the voting records that one continues to see in states like Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and the entire South Eastern Conference, Tuberville is not alone. There are other racists in the ranks at all levels. How much better could many Black players turn out if they had people in charge of their careers who saw them as more than the object that slave owners and overseers saw in the slaves?

How long can and will we tolerate and ride along with the condition wherein HBCUs being treated less than equals in the game of college football? How long can and will we tolerate a system wherein Black players are just money-making objects for white colleges and coaches? Several Black colleges, such as Tougaloo, have long since given up football because of the inequities in the system. Similarly, the Negro Leagues in baseball have long since folded their tents because of the unfair conditions under which they had to operate. We all see the racial predicament of Black college football programs and of Black players on white campuses. When and how do we say, “Enough is enough?” When will we act to change the game?

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OPINION: The racism in college football that we do not talk about

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 18, 2023