Morehouse’s call to cancel football exemplifies 'tough decisions' for HBCUs amid pandemic

The FBS football schools are marching toward an attempt to play college football in the fall. At the brand-name schools around the country, they’re bringing players back to campus, instituting COVID-19 testing regimens and figuring out ways isolate, quarantine and contract trace after players are diagnosed with the virus.

At smaller schools around the country, the same momentum toward playing football in the fall is beginning to disappear. On Friday, Morehouse College in Atlanta announced that it’ll be canceling both the football and cross country seasons for the fall.

Morehouse, a Division II school and one of the best-known historically Black colleges in the country, is believed to be the first scholarship team to announce that it won’t be playing in the fall. There’s also been a handful of games featuring HBCUs that have been canceled, including a game in Memphis between Tennessee State and Jackson State known as the Southern Heritage Classic.

Morehouse athletic director Javarro Edwards told Yahoo Sports that the school’s decision was based primarily on safety. After studying the level of care that the NFL and NCAA Power Five schools were giving their athletes, Morehouse officials concluded they couldn’t do the same.

“We are leaders in a lot of different ways,” Edwards said in a phone interview on Friday evening. “We figure we’d lead the pack in this, too. The health and safety of our students is what’s important. We’re not afraid to say it.”

It’s quite possible that Morehouse could end up a trendsetter among scholarship football programs in the way that the Ivy League was out in front of canceling its basketball tournament in the spring.

Division III Bowdoin College also announced a cancellation of its fall sports this week. Some FCS schools have started to adjust their schedules to being played later in the fall. With COVID numbers again spiking around the country this week, will announcements like Morehouse’s become common?

In this Friday, April 12, 2019 photo, people enter the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
In this Friday, April 12, 2019 photo, people enter the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Morehouse plays in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with schools like Clark Atlanta, Tuskegee and Savannah State. SIAC commissioner Gregory Moore told Yahoo Sports in an email that the pandemic has “illuminated significant disparities” of schools attempting to navigate the economics of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought to light the byproduct of race, class and economic inequality,” Moore said. “Similarly, within the context of intercollegiate sports, there exists a significant class divide between schools and leagues that have significant media rights agreements and those who do not. As a consequence, limited resource institutions in general and many HBCUs in particular, face greater challenges as they attempt to navigate this post Covid-19 landscape.”

Those differences have long manifested themselves in areas like coaching salaries, stadium size and facility square footage. What’s becoming apparent amid this pandemic is that medical care is also going to be a separator in college athletics.

“We want to make sure that the same standard of care that young men at Clemson and Alabama and Michigan are getting, we’re getting,” Edwards said. “Our student-athletes are just important.”

Edwards added: “The reality is that all things are tied to expenses. For us, the driver truly was how are we going to provide this higher level of care.”

Are HBCUs and lesser-funded programs across the country staring at similar fates? Edwards pointed out that “our population” at Morehouse is “more vulnerable” because the “African American population is more susceptible to the worst parts of COVID.” (The Guardian reported that Black Americans are three times more likely to die from COVID than white Americans.)

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association commissioner Jacqie McWilliams told Yahoo Sports on Friday that her league hasn’t made any decisions about canceling fall sports. She said there’s a focus within the league of HBCUs on playing the conference games, but no directive to cancel non-league games.

The CIAA includes Division II schools like Winston-Salem State, Bowie State and Virginia Union. Williams predicted that testing costs will impact all schools below the FBS level and that schedules could become fluid. “I think it’s going to impact all [smaller] schools and mid-level schools,” she said in a phone interview. “If you’re not in those conferences that have television deal that help to support their revenue, it’ll be a challenge.”

At the FCS level, SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland acknowledged in a phone interview that his league – which includes Alabama State, Grambling and Prairie View A&M – is in a geographic “hot spot” of COVID-19 positive tests.

“I don’t anticipate Morehouse being the last institution to make that call,” he said in a phone interview. “From the SWAC standpoint, the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and constituents will be the No. 1 priority. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”

For Morehouse, Friday proved a difficult day for the coaches and administrators. They had a call with the players to break the news. All scholarships will be honored, including those of incoming players. But players who’d been working out for six months still faced a difficult reality, especially those who were playing their final season.

“It’s devastating,” said Edwards. “I can only imagine what it’s like for an 18- to 22-year-old. But they understand what’s at stake here and their parents understand what’s at stake here. Initially they took it hard, and I took it hard for them.”

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