Tough times call for tough decisions – even when they’re not popular. But sometimes those unpopular calls turn out to be the right thing to do. Last week, Fisk University, an historically black college in Nashville, announced that it was dropping its participation in NCAA sports as one part of an effort to deal with the school’s dire financial condition. And we mean dire.
The 142-year-old institution is in debt and operating at a deficit. It spends more on its students than it brings in, and is in real danger of shutting down.
School officials cutting NCAA-sanctioned sports could save $500,000 annually. Currently, according to reports, the school spends $263.075 annually to support its Division III programs, including basketball. (There are no athletic scholarships in DIII.) Revenue? The school says it generated about $10,000 last year, and that was from an NCAA grant awarded for participating in some sports.
Talk about March Madness.
School officials said they’ll replace the intercollegiate sports with a more extensive intramural program. Predictably, some students, faculty, university employees (particularly those in the athletic department) are against the move. “Usually everyone has a homecoming football game,” university senior David Hill recently told Black College Wire. “We just have a basketball game, and now we’re not even going to have that.”
Hill, a physics major, added: “It decreases the camaraderie between students now that you don’t have a function or an event where students get together. It decreases school pride. What are you rooting for, other than your academics?”
Seems plenty to me.
Like other HBCUs, Fisk was founded with a clear mandate: to provide freed slaves and their descendants with an incomparable education and prepare them for leadership in society. The school’s mission talks about its “rich academic experience,” says its faculty and students have a “passion for learning and personal growth.”
I’m all for sports and the experiences they provide for young people. I lament the loss of organized sports in our public schools and have fed my family on the industries of professional and collegiate sports. But like many others I also recognize that our passion for sports often exceeds our reason, a notion that is supported on our sports pages nearly every day.
The lives of the Fisk students who will no longer be able to play D-III sports will not be inexorably diminished. Nor will the lives of those students, like the quotable Mr. Hill, who no longer have D-III games to attend (free, if I may add).
Schools throughout the nation – from Miami to Stanford, my alma mater – are arguing over the relative importance of sports on their campuses. As un-winnable as the sports v. education discussion may be, it isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. It just may be eternal.
Leave that argument to them. Let other schools try to wrestle profits out of their athletic programs. HBCUs, frankly, have bigger mandates than simply providing sports teams for a few athletically gifted students. Fisk is right to drop D-III sports in an effort to save its ability to educate students.
Oh, I can see the hair on the backs on some black-college graduates rising now. Sports has played a huge role in the history and growth of many HBCUs. They provided the athletes who broke color barriers in some pro sports and, in recent years, HBCU teams have often proven capable of competing with and beating teams from larger institutions. Just this weekend, baseball teams from Bethune-Cookman and Southern more than held their own against UCLA and USC, two venerable programs that should compete for the national title this season, in MLB’s first Urban Invitational in Los Angeles.
Some HBCUs should play on. Play for the pride. Play for the money. Play for the same reason every other school plays. But with many HBCUs – Fisk isn’t the only one at Defcom 5 when it comes to finances – the priority for those institutions should be fulfilling the school’s founding mandate rather than filling arena or stadium seats, especially when so many larger schools are falling short in educating student athletes.
Fisk is making the right call here, and one can only hope it helps the institution regain its financial footing.
As of its last report, the school had raised $1,032,00 toward a matching grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which pledged up to $2 million dollars if the school can raise $4 million by June 30. You may contribute by clicking here.