The College Athlete Experience at HBCUs

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Athletics plays an enormous role in the college experience for many students. Attending sporting events is an activity enjoyed by students, staff, and alumni. Some students may even choose a college based on the notoriety of its athletics program.

According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are gaining popularity among college athletes, and more athletes are committing to HBCUs than ever before.

History of College Athletics at HBCUs

In the early 1900s, sports were becoming increasingly popular at predominantly white colleges, but these schools recruited very few Black athletes. Many intercollegiate athletic programs were highly unstructured with no formal oversight. These informal student-led activities then transitioned into highly organized and institutionally controlled operations.

An outcome of this reformation was the creation of the first Black athletic conference, the Inter-Scholastic Athletic Association of the Middle Atlantic State, which was formed during the same year as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

At that time, the NCAA excluded Black athletes and HBCUs. Despite having fewer financial resources and limited social capital, HBCUs were determined to offer aspiring Black athletes spaces where they could cultivate their talent.

HBCUs were always a place of inclusion. Even before Title IX, many HBCUs accepted women athletes. In the mid-20th century, African American women dominated in both track and field due to major HBCUs like Tuskegee University and Tennessee State University opening their doors to female athletes who competed at both the collegiate level and in the Olympics.

Unlike many predominately white colleges that were rife with racial discrimination and exclusion, HBCUs provided a space for Black athletes to compete in a supportive environment.

What Role Does College Athletics Play in the HBCU Experience?

HBCUs provide a space for athletes to be enriched both academically, civically, and athletically. Black athletes could learn about Black culture in the classroom, while building team camaraderie on the field.

Sports have always been a space that fosters a familial atmosphere, but for HBCUs it meant that Black athletes could also build relationships with people who shared their same cultural identity. Studies show that Black college athletes at HBCUs felt more support than Black athletes at predominantly white colleges, especially from professors.

HBCU athletic events served as culturally liberating activities, and they also provided opportunities for Black professionals to be hired into coaching positions, an opportunity that is rarely afforded at predominantly white colleges and universities.

Since the late 19th century, football games have been an integral part of HBCUs. HBCUs host classic games, which differ from standard regular season games. Classics involve the integration of African American cultural events like step shows, beauty pageants, parades, music concerts, Battle of the Bands performances, and community service outreach.

During football games, HBCU marching bands are a popular feature; these bands differ from traditional marching bands by incorporating dancing and upbeat music. One of the most popular and lucrative football classic games is the Bayou Classic in Louisiana, which features a football game between Grambling State University and Southern University.

The funds generated from this classic support student scholarships, academic programs, and campus renovations. They also serve as huge recruitment events for both students and student-athletes.

In addition to the football classics, the annual Central Intercollegiate Athletics Association basketball tournament is one of the most popular basketball conference tournaments in the United States.

Challenges for HBCU College Athletics

In spite of the success seen in college athletics at HBCUs, HBCUs receive less federal funding than other institutions. They also receive fewer sponsorship opportunities and have faced difficulties in cultivating large donor bases.

Texas Southern University basketball coach Johnny Jones describes the lack of funding and resources as one of the biggest challenges for HBCU athletic departments. With fewer financial resources, HBCUs face challenges in marketing the success of their programs and recruiting the best talent so they can remain competitive and compete on the national stage.

It also inhibits HBCUs' ability to offer athletic scholarships for student athletes. This becomes especially challenging considering that students at HBCUs typically come from lower income backgrounds than students at other schools.

HBCUs will continue to remain attractive to many college athletes as they provide culturally affirmative spaces where Black student-athletes can feel more supported than at other institutions. In spite of the financial challenges experienced by HBCUs, HBCUs are providing a space for athletes to thrive on the field and in the classroom.

Feature Image: Tony Anderson / DigitalVision / Getty Images