The modern US plantation – The shameful state of college sports without integrity, dignity or sportsmanship and with student athletes exploited as cannon fodder: US Black schools paid to take a whipping. Small schools are unable to properly fund their athletic teams without sending their football and basketball teams out for a complete humiliation while risking injury. | JOE NOCERA
CLEMSON, S.C. (Sept. 18) — Clemson played South Carolina State in college football on Saturday. Both universities field Division I teams, and that is pretty much where the similarities end in terms of athletics.
The No. 5 Tigers have an $83.5 million athletic budget, which includes six strength and conditioning coaches, and chartered jets for some road games. South Carolina State, a historically black school, has an athletic budget of a little more than $9 million and just one strength coach. It travels to games on a bus.
As part of the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference, Clemson is a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the top level of college football. The Bulldogs play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, which is made up of small historically black colleges and universities (known as H.B.C.U. teams). Under N.C.A.A. rules, big-time schools like Clemson can hand out 85 football scholarships, while the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision schools like South Carolina State can offer only 63. You get the picture.
Is there anyone who thought that the Bulldogs had a chance at an upset, like that time in 2007 when Appalachian State beat Michigan? Or like that time (Saturday) when North Dakota State knocked off No. 13 Iowa? No. The last time Clemson and South Carolina State played, the Tigers won, 73-7.
Buddy Pough, the Bulldogs’ coach, acknowledged last week that his team’s task was hopeless.
“They’ve got the ability to really come out and knock us crazy if they really decide to be that way,” he told reporters. “We want them to just kind of come out and just kind of go through the motions and get out of there, which would probably be the best-case scenario for us.”
Clemson chose to knock the Bulldogs crazy. The score was 45-0 at halftime. While the South Carolina State marching band entertained the crowd at the half — the highlight of the game, in truth — the referees went to the locker rooms to ask the coaches if they were willing to mercifully shorten the game by three minutes a quarter. Pough and Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach, agreed that was a good idea.
The final score was 59-0.
I do not need to explain why games like these, between a major football power and a much smaller school, are played: money. These matchups, usually scheduled early in the season, are called “guarantee games,” because the visiting team is guaranteed an appearance fee. In other words, they are paid handsomely to get knocked crazy.
In this case, South Carolina State was paid $300,000. It was the Bulldogs’ third straight guarantee game; they had also lost their first two games, by 38-0 to Central Florida and by 53-24 to Louisiana Tech. The three games together reaped about $1 million for South Carolina State — more than 10 percent of its athletic budget.
Here are some of the other scores and payouts involving H.B.C.U. teams in guarantee games this season: Howard University’s opening game was against Maryland ($350,000); it lost, 52-13. The next week it lost to Rutgers, 52-14 ($350,000). Prairie View A&M was beaten by Texas A&M, 67-0 ($450,000). Morgan State lost to Marshall, 62-0. Hampton lost to Old Dominion, 54-21. North Carolina Central lost to Duke, 49-6. And on and on.
Yes, there are predominantly white F.C.S. schools that play guarantee games and lose by wide margins.
Yes, there are predominantly white F.C.S. schools that play guarantee games and lose by wide margins. And, yes, there are times when the visitor in a guarantee game upsets a football power, though such teams are usually quality midmajors like North Dakota State, which beat Iowa, 23-21, and walked away with a check for $500,000, thank you very much.
But I want to focus here on H.B.C.U. teams, which are usually the most physically overmatched and get paid the least amount of money — and yet they feel they have no choice but to use their players as sacrificial lambs in guarantee games to fund their struggling athletic departments. The one-sided scores — and the public humiliation and potential for serious injury that come with such mismatches — make one wonder whether it is really worth it.
There was a time, of course, when H.B.C.U. teams played big-time football. But the college football landscape has changed drastically in recent decades, leaving the historically black programs in financial pain. They play guarantee games to help make ends meet.
Not surprising, those with a vested interest in guarantee games defend them. Dennis E. Thomas, the commissioner of South Carolina State’s conference, the MEAC, told me that “we are all Division I football, and over the years, F.C.S. schools have served the F.B.S. very well.” But he acknowledged that the primary motive for such games was financial.
He added: “I just happen to believe that it is good for football because we do have some victories against F.B.S. opponents. It’s like March Madness. When a small school beats a big one, that is good for basketball. It adds to the pageantry and excitement.”
Gary Harrell, Howard’s football coach, said that he liked guarantee games, “just because of the excitement and the exposure.”
“We use it as a measuring tool,” he added. “We want to know what type of team we have.” Sometimes, he said, good players with H.B.C.U. teams will get noticed by scouts when they play a guarantee game.
But Harrell also admitted that he tries not to think about the possibility of injuries or the game getting out of hand.
“Playing at a Big Ten or SEC school, you know you are taking a risk,” he said.
Last season, the Bison lost to Boston College, 76-0.
“That was not a fun experience,” he told me. “We didn’t have the team makeup to go through that type of game. We weren’t ready.”
The game also took a serious physical toll.
“We were decimated with injuries the rest of the year,” Harrell said.
The potential for serious injury is no small matter. But it is not the only issue.
“There is something wrong about writing a check to someone so you can humiliate them,” said Joseph Cooper, a sports management professor at the University of Connecticut.
Another critic, Aaron Taylor, a law professor at St. Louis University — who received his law degree from Howard — said, “You get desperation by the poorer schools and exploitation by the richer schools.”
Between 2011 and 2015, Taylor said, the average score when an H.B.C.U. team played a football power was 55-8
Between 2011 and 2015, Taylor said, the average score when an H.B.C.U. team played a football power was 55-8; in a third of those games, the margin of victory was more than 55 points.
“I don’t see how this reflects well on your school or your sport,” Taylor said. “It is embarrassing for someone who takes pride in my school, as I do.”
The sense one gets in talking to people who defend guarantee games is that they just do not see any other way to pay the bills: Without these games, the smaller schools simply would not be able to operate a full-fledged athletic program. (The N.C.A.A. mandates that Division I schools field a minimum of 14 sports teams.)
“We have to do it because we need the money, and we’re not getting it from anywhere else,” Solomon Brannan, the former head coach of Georgia’s Morris Brown College, told the Howard University News Service last year.
But is that really true?
“We have to have an honest conversation about the institutional integrity being compromised by these games,” Cooper said. His proposed solution — and Taylor’s, too — is for the Division I H.B.C.U. teams to move down a notch to Division II. Such a move would make athletics more affordable: Division II schools only have to field 10 teams, and their football costs are significantly lower than a typical F.C.S. team. And the fan base for many H.B.C.U. teams, though small by the standards of a Clemson or a Michigan, would be near or at the top of Division II. Additionally, they would no longer be hopelessly overmatched, or know even before the kickoff that they were destined to lose.
The move would help restore some dignity and pride, which are utterly lacking in a guarantee game.
With their rich football tradition, the H.B.C.U. teams resist the notion that they would be better served in Division II; nostalgia is a powerful thing. But they may not have much choice. Thanks to the college football playoffs, F.B.S. teams are paying more attention to strength of schedule, which can be a factor in deciding which teams get in. Already, Big Ten teams will no longer schedule games against F.C.S. teams. This is partly because of the playoffs, and partly because they are just lousy games to watch.
After the Clemson game, I spoke for a few minutes with Pough, South Carolina State’s coach. Even though his team had been humiliated in three successive guarantee games, he still defended them.
“It creates a sense of urgency to play at a high level,” he said, adding, “It would be more worth it if we made more money.”
When I asked him if the score was embarrassing, he pointed to Louisville, which was in the process of crushing No. 2 Florida State, 63-20.
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
A few minutes earlier, though, in speaking to his team in the locker room after the game, he had a rather different take: “We said all we wanted to do is get through this. We did that. I wish we had played better, but everybody gave it their all.”
“Conference play starts next week,” he added. “Our season starts next week.”