HBCU Sports and the Culture We Keep

An internal investigation into academic fraud at varying levels at the University of North Carolina reveals that athletes were given paper classes and preferential treatment for the better part of 18 years. It remains to be seen what kind of punishment the NCAA will mete out for the Tar Heels, but the salacious story introduces an interesting discussion on the cross sections of education, business, race and morality – and the Black athletes at the center of it all. For all of the rhetoric about ineffective leadership, outdated missions and low-resources at HBCUs, there is a guilty pleasure to be had in reading this story of teachers, coaches, boosters, administrators and athletes behaving badly.

HBCUs get a lot of things wrong, and usually because the tools and personnel necessary to do things right are hard to come by and nearly impossible to afford. But what HBCUs typically don’t do, regardless of size, mission, geography or endowment, is cheat and exploit Black athletes, and particularly Black men, out of education.

The biggest known HBCU grade changing scandal went down at Southern University more than 10 years ago. More than 500 students were implicated in paying an assistant registrar in manipulating grades and transcripts to receive degrees. But that issue was centered around the athletic department, and was never an operation orchestrated and endorsed by more than one wayward academic executive.

Cheyney University received strong penalties earlier this year, when the NCAA revealed that its department of athletics maintained poor records and allowed ineligible athletes to compete in games across a number of sports. These are notable outliers, but its rare to hear about massive grade changing scandals to keep Black athletes eligible for play at HBCUs. The academic culture at Black colleges is built on phrases bellowed out in lecture halls and classrooms: “no free ride,” “you won’t cheapen my degree,” or “I earned mine, and you have to earn yours.”

But over the same period of these two schools’ transgressions, Florida State University, Auburn University and Louisiana State University are just a handful of recent BCS national champions to have stepped into the cesspool of academic fraud.

From historic and contemporary angles of achievement, Black colleges typically don’t give too many free passes on classroom performance. Culture won’t let our professors and administrators simply concede that the business and profile of sports means enough to send an unprepared student out into the world with limited expertise and skill. Ethnic pride won’t allow a professor to allow an athlete to receive unearned access, privilege or credentials, because the professor knows the end result isn’t a raised comfort level on campus, but an undignified career arc that awaits beyond the campus gates.

Perhaps that is why so many HBCUs struggle with the NCAA Academic Progress Rate; low-resources and disproportionate metrics aside, a Black college has zero problem with a student flunking or transferring out if his academic performance isn’t up to standard. It is the core of the infamous, nearly universal HBCU freshman orientation speech.

“Look to your left and look to your right; somebody is not going to be here four years from now.”

It’s one thing if an athlete is committed to avoid learning, but something totally different for an HBCU to endorse and orchestrate his professional demise for him. It’s the same principle that prohibits alcohol on campus, and limits open co-ed visitation – from an institutional perspective, students will be the sole proprietors of their own campus-based sin and stupidity.

There are many things upon which HBCUs can be judged; some of them fair arguments, and some of them fair but missing appropriate economic and social context. But when scandal sweeps the higher education landscape, and HBCUs tend to be at the front of the rush, we should remember that Black colleges don’t get everything wrong.

Especially when larger, whiter schools seem to make a nasty habit of exploiting Black athletes in the name of money, championships and exposure.


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13 comments
  1. Sad case black student-athletes and the course African and African-America history. Really. Its like it is bad enough its our kids that have been pimped for the sport but enough worse is they used a African-American history course to do illegal academic fraud with. It seems that not only there is a disregard for the Black collegiate athlete but another disregard to the course. Really.

    1. The real sad case is that HBCUs do not care enough to fight to keep these guys out of those schools… it is obvious PWIs do not care about the athlete or their education, just about the production and along the way smack the black community in its face. An HBCU can save these student-athletes, but it will take A LOT of work now because the HBCUs are soooo far behind in athletics now.

  2. The NCAA is a joke, then they want to punish low-resource HBCU athletic departments. Really. When and if the NCAA hands down a punishment we will really tell how they value the worth the HBCU. Just sad and REALLY!!!

  3. Its like North Carolina has too much resources and they still disregard the African-American Student-Athlete

  4. This is on point, Jarrett. I read that atrocious UNC Rosa Parks paper from a student athlete. Too many of our own are one injury away from precarious existences, especially if they don’t actually learn things and have opportunities to grow outside of the football field. Also, I’m guilty of telling folks they won’t cheapen by degree, hahaha.

  5. This article is funny, an everybody who replied is missing the big picture. To all you “you wont cheapen my degree” people, guess what it is already cheap because an hbcu degree is still not as good as a unc degree. These hbcus would all be crushed with sanctions if they participated in the academic scandals, an they cannot afford any pay for play so of course there no scandals there. These hbcus need to be pumping more athletic pride, and saving these young men from exploitation instead of being proud they don’t give a damn about sports and the athletes!!! Hbcus guess what, the same young men that are being exploited by unc is making that school millions at the end of it our community will have another young man lacking with no future. Instead if hbcus embraced and poured more into the athletic programs you will see these schools grow so fast, while preparing the athlete for the real world with a “earned” degree. None of you guys dont think it would be great if NCCU could host unc or duke for a game. Or espn channels are showing 3 or 4 rival games during peak hours an not 1am in the morning. There are too many school from major universities to mid- major who can easy attract 17 year olds who have talent because they make you feel like you are wanted, an they have the nice facilities to attract kids. Hbcus TAKE money from was athletics, they ruin their own chances of having good teams, an in turn hurting the whole school. Emagine if an hbcu could compete for an national championship an that whole team

    1. I agree with your assessment of HBCU funding towards athletic programs. However, the comment about HBCU degrees not holding up to a PWI is false. As an alumni of Hampton U., I started from the ground floor of the federal agency to second in command within my region, outmatching others from PWIs that include USC. So, the argument about academic inferiority of HBCUs to PWIs is moot. Now, your argument about the funding issues at HBCU athletic programs, san the a academic aspect, is spot-on. Unfortunately, many of the problems is due to A.D’s and school officials who lack hustle, imagination and strong networking skills to build a quality program and brand that is equivalent to USCs, UNCs, etc. Also, the Black American community has not provided the necessary financial and community support needed to build their brand to quality standard. Once this is established on a continued basis, then these discussions will disappear.

      1. Fredrick Lee, I apologize for insulting HBCU degrees. I am man enough to say when I am wrong and that was wrong, both my parents and oldest sister went to HBCUs, but when I hear “you wont cheapen my degree”, it really grinds my gears (just like me saying a PWI is better than a HBCU). You are right it is not about what school you graduate from, it is what you do with it that matters.

      2. But I can agree AND disagree respectively with a few of your points on the athletic side. The people in place do not WANT to do anything for the athlete, and it is not because they lack anything intellectually to do so. Because many of the people in charge have the same mentality as this article and commenters, which is athletics is not a priority (you wont cheapen my degree). Until we realize we NEED to save these black athletes PWIs will continue to use us to make their schools bigger and better. It is no secret that is how these big schools have done it for years. But HBCUs are wayyyy behind now so it will take a lot of sacrifices and support to build back up but it can be done, but it starts from the people at the top.

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