Every November, Grambling State and Southern University meet in New Orleans for the Bayou Classic. It's a showcase of everything that fans find compelling about Division I football: a historic in-state rivalry between two like-minded schools with passionate fan bases, steeped in pomp and tradition, showcased on national television.
But for both schools, and their fellow historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the South, the glory of the Bayou Classic is the closest they'll get to the big-time college football we're used to watching every Saturday during the fall.
HBCUs are technically in Division I—alongside Notre Dame and Stanford University and the University of Alabama—but they're playing a different game. According to USA Today, seven of the eight poorest public athletic departments in Division I are either HBCUs or majority black schools. There are 23 college football coaches who made more money than the entire Coppin State athletic department earned last year. Grambling State brings in just $5.3 million per year—just a tad more than fellow Louisiana-based Division I school LSU pays football coach Les Miles, and a third of what LSU was prepared to pay Miles if it fired him last year.
"Grambling is not competing with LSU," Fritz Polite, the director of the sport management program at Shenandoah University, said. "They are not recruiting the same athletes."
While schools such as Oregon erect gleaming, multimillion-dollar football training palaces, Grambling State's facilities are so poorly maintained that in 2013 its football players went on strike to protest the problem, highlighted by a dangerously dilapidated weight room that would be unacceptable at most high schools. Other HBCU athletic departments have similarly inadequate infrastructure, and increased sports spending is neither a priority nor a possibility—not when the schools themselves are struggling with falling enrollments, weak endowments, and massive budget cuts as Southern states divest from public and higher education.
Grambling State, Southern, and other HBCU football programs are technically in Division I's Football Championship Subdivision, along with other smaller schools, but even then they don't compete in the FCS playoffs. Rather, due to lack of overall competitiveness, the winners of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) meet in their own "bowl game" at the end of the season. "They want to still have that aura of being a Division I school, but they don't have the Division I resources," Polite said.
In short, the black schools are struggling, and essentially segregated from the rest of Division I athletics. And that raises a thorny question: Is it time for them to drop out of Division I altogether?
"There is a very reminiscent, wistful feel about the good old days when there was this greater relevance," said Thomas Aiello, a professor at Valdosta State who wrote a book on the Bayou Classic rivalry. "But [the decline] is very palpable. They know."
It wasn't always this way. Decades ago, football at HBCUs was just as big as football in the Southeastern Conference, if not bigger.
"Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Grambling was the black Notre Dame and had more players in the NFL than any other school, they were on TV all the time," Aiello said.
Ironically, it was segregation that turned HBCU football into a major powerhouse. Bigger schools like Alabama and LSU had more resources to attract top recruits, just like they do today. However, they opted to pass on many of the country's best high school players because of their skin color.
In the 2017 college football recruiting class, 17 of the top 20 players are African-American. A half-century ago, almost all of them would have ended up at HBCUs.
"All those people that normally would have liked to have gone to Florida State, they would have loved to have gone to Florida. Because of segregation, they had to go to black colleges," Polite said. "That talent level produced some very exciting football."
Even after integration, HBCUs continued to attract talent. Doug Williams, the Pro Football Hall-of-Famer who played with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington, went to Grambling State. Walter Payton, arguably the greatest running back ever, went to Jackson State. Jerry Rice went to Mississippi Valley State. Steve McNair went to Alcorn State. Michael Strahan went to Texas Southern.
Once upon a time, that talent made HBCU fandom—largely among African-American fans, but also among whites who knew good football when they saw it—the equivalent of SEC fandom today, with many supporters rooting for and invested in the success of schools they didn't actually attend.
"Grambling used to have fans all over the world who would follow them religiously, even though their alumni base was very small," Aiello said.
Of course, that was then. As massive television contracts reshaped the landscape of college football, HBCUs increasingly have been left behind. Today, when the best high school players in the country choose college programs, they hardly ever pick HBCUs.
For one, there are far more choices. Football is popular, and while HBCU enrollment is declining overall, other colleges and universities are growing. "You also have an explosion of the number of football programs," Aaron Taylor, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, said. "In the state of Florida, in my childhood, Florida, Florida State and Miami were the main ones, but now you have South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic. These were programs that did not exist."
The big schools are getting richer, too. Top conferences now have their own cable networks, and their media deals are worth tens of millions more than they were just a decade ago. With their big budgets—for example, Alabama earns about $150 million a year—the power conference programs offer far greater opportunities for athletes. They have elite coaches and world-class weight rooms; their games are broadcast on national television each and every week; they build pricey academic facilities and hire ample support staff to ensure athletes stay eligible for competition.
As such, you can't blame a talented African-American football player for selecting Alabama over Alabama A&M.
"Would you rather have filet mignon over here, or would you rather have a hot dog on the other side?" Polite said.
Compounding the issue are state budget cuts to higher education. Consider the situation in Louisiana, which is particularly dire: the state has cut over half of its total higher education funding, putting Grambling State and Southern—which are already working with small budgets—on even thinner ice. Per-student cuts in Florida (32 percent), Alabama (38 percent), Mississippi (24 percent) and Georgia (23 percent) also have disproportionately affected HBCUs, which simply don't have the resources to absorb financial losses as well as larger institutions.
In Illinois, which has seen a rise in higher education spending but is currently mired in a budget crisis, majority-black Chicago State nearly had to close its doors. The school's basketball coach, Tracy Dildy, recently told VICE Sports that he didn't think that was a coincidence.
"Not only the University of Illinois, the University of Illinois-Chicago, it would never happen. University of Illinois-Springfield it would never happen," Dildy said. "Right now they're basically showing how they feel about the university that's the lowest on the totem pole. And it just happens to be the only predominantly black institution in the whole state of Illinois."
Are HBCUs an afterthought for lawmakers? It's hard to argue otherwise. Governors in Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana have all suggested merging or closing schools like Grambling State, much to the dismay of alumni.
"When we talk about states, there's not a lot of political clout for HBCUs in a lot of places," Taylor said. "There are histories [in some states] that are hostile ... to HBCUs. There is racism in these places that is still impacting HBCUs."
Some believe the National Collegiate Athletic Association also works against HBCUs, which were not accepted as member institutions until the 1970s. Taylor said the association is "indifferent" to the problems facing the schools.
"The NCAA never wanted the HBCUs to being with," Aiello said. "They've always treated HBCUs as the redheaded stepchild that was forced upon them, that they didn't want."
In an attempt to measure educational quality, the NCAA introduced a measure in 2003 called the Academic Progress Rate. The problem is, it measures eligibility, not academic quality. While larger schools have armies of tutors to make sure athletes are keeping up in their classes and staying eligible, HBCUs scramble to keep up.
"We have three coaches on our staff and one graduate assistant, so we're the ones making sure they're in study hall," Mississippi Valley State basketball coach Andre Payne said. "We're constantly checking in with our academic advisor back at campus who's letting us know what tests they have, and then we've got professors that work with us. They give those guys their assignments before they leave, or they put them online. So you've just got to be creative."
Creativity often isn't enough. In 2014-15, the most recent year of reporting, all 23 teams punished with postseason ineligibility by the NCAA due to low APR scores are from HBCUs. "We know that APR is as much a reflection of resources as it is intent to educate these students," Taylor said.
Polite and a number of his colleagues met with the NCAA in 2011 to explain these issues. "They didn't take any of our recommendations and they never invited us back," he said. "The NCAA never has to give a reason. They just do what they want to do."
On the football field, the disparities between HBCUs and other Division I programs can best be seen during "guarantee games"—that is, when HBCU teams play road games against major programs and get blown out in return for a paycheck. This practice is common among smaller schools, but HBCUs take it to an extreme.
Three years ago, Howard finished with 11 total yards of offense in a 76-0 loss to Boston College. In 2013, Florida A&M went to Ohio State as a 50-point underdog and came away with a $900,000 paycheck— over half of Florida A&M's $1.6 million football budget, according to the Columbus Dispatch—to help chip away at the school's $6 million deficit.
The HBCU guarantee game phenomenon extends to basketball, too. Mississippi Valley State went on a 14-game, 13-state road trip to start its 2015-16 season—and lost all 14 games. That road trip earned $600,000 for the Delta Devils, and many of their conference brethren did something similar. Texas Southern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff played no home games. Of the 119 non-conference games SWAC teams will play this year, only 16 (13 percent) are true home games, and only six (five percent) are true home games against other Division I teams.
HBCUs need these games to stay in Division I, but as Taylor wrote for Inside Higher Ed, they are paying a high price in order to Not Actually Keep Up with the Joneses:
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.
Given the state of HBCU athletics, is it worth staying in Division I? Some say no.
"Times have changed, and to me it doesn't make much sense to field a mediocre team at the Division I level when you could have a top team in Division II," Taylor said.
Dropping to Division II likely would solve many of the problems facing HBCU athletic departments. They wouldn't have to sponsor as many sports and as many scholarships, and they could travel less, playing non-conference season games against nearby schools. They wouldn't have to subsidize their athletic departments with grueling schedules—serving as road warriors and cannon fodder in guarantee games—and could instead focus more on academics.
Exiting Division I also would mean the return of old rivalries, as SWAC and MEAC schools could play current Division II HBCUs like Tuskegee and Morehouse. The most important HBCU game of the year—the Bayou Classic—could still be played.
Moreover, today's Division I HBCU tackling dummies would be well positioned to be tomorrow's Division II powerhouses. Six of the current Division I HBCUs have higher attendance at games than anyone in Division II. Southern finished in the top 10 in FCS attendance in 2015, and HBCUs make up six of the top 15. Four others finished in the top 30. The fans likely will be there, no matter what.
"I don't understand why the HBCUs would want to be in the Division I model when they know they can't keep up with those resources," Polite said.
On the other hand, there's history to consider—and, perhaps more important, pride. Leaving big-time football would carry symbolic weight. Pragmatism aside, do schools like Grambling State and Southern want to look as though they are waving white flags, once-great black institutions surrendering to state legislatures and a NCAA that appears to be kicking them to the curb?
"There are plenty of people in those communities that say that [leaving Division I is] just a way of letting the NCAA win," Aiello said.
As HBCUs continue to be squeezed on and off the football field, they ultimately will have to decide if that's a game worth continuing—or if the best way to win is to stop playing.