The debate over proceeding with football has been fierce, with arguments often pitting the fact that players, whose well-being would be at risk, don’t get paid against the devastating impact of lost revenue from upending such a profitable fall ritual.
But the uprisings this summer make it clear the racial dimension to this conversation is just as important. Black men account for more than half of all Power 5 college football players despite representing less than three percent of the undergraduate student bodies on those campuses, according to a recent study. Asking them to risk their health to preserve revenue for universities would simply be an extension of the long tradition of devaluing of black lives in American higher education.
Most elite universities benefited from slavery, something for which many institutions are starting to atone. Yet, the direct disregard for black lives on campus is also a product of recent history, shaping how universities developed following World War II. While the G.I. Bill contributed to a postwar college enrollment boom, black veterans were denied the full benefits of the bill. And for as much has changed over the past three-quarters of a century, the same racial dynamics remain on many campuses today.
The desegregation of all-white universities in the South gave a glimpse of how black lives were devalued in higher education. At the University of Alabama in June 1963 the university’s admission of two black students — Vivian Malone and James Hood — garnered global attention as approximately 400 journalists were in Tuscaloosa as segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace took his defiant, largely symbolic, stand against desegregation.
Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” is a well-documented, watershed moment in U.S. history. Yet, it wasn’t just Wallace who didn’t want black students on campus. University leaders and trustees also introduced purposeful obstacles to desegregation.
The day after UA’s desegregation, Gessner T. McCorvey, president pro tem of the board of trustees, said, “I just hope and pray that these Negroes have sense enough to conduct themselves in a way that will not be offensive to our people.” McCorvey also told university President Frank A. Rose and other senior administrators that, if civil rights activists decided to protest by blocking airport runways or railways, he would tell black leaders that their plan would “result in the railroads of America having the ‘best-greased’ rails of any railroads in the world.”
While it was rare for academic leaders to convey such blunt, anti-black opinions, more subtle dismissals of black lives and education were common, ultimately allowing for college presidents to make symbolic statements about racial diversity without diverting real resources to the problems of racism. In turn, several college leaders co-opted the language of the black freedom struggle to launch initiatives profitable to their universities but not broadly beneficial to black lives.
In July 1963, President John F. Kennedy asked the nation’s academic leaders for assistance: “The leadership that you and your colleagues show in extending equal educational opportunity today will influence American life for decades to come.” Kennedy understood that America’s racism had created a foreign policy problem, as it belied the nation’s espoused commitment to democracy. He asked college presidents to implement “special programs” that would help bring operational changes to how higher education, and society at large, functioned.
Soon, the presidents of black and white colleges and universities began working together to address racism. The presidents of the nation’s wealthier, majority-white campuses quickly announced their commitment to various initiatives, mostly focused on the black colleges where two-thirds of the nation’s estimated 180,000 black college students were enrolled. Initiatives included summer institutes for black college faculty, advanced graduate-level training for black college faculty and exchange programs between faculty and students at black and white colleges. University of Michigan President Harlan H. Hatcher said of his campus’s planned exchange program with Tuskegee Institute, “we can help them in the development of a strong liberal arts program. They, in turn, will advise us on the [racial] programs.”
But there were serious limits to these efforts: The majority-white universities were primarily concerned with the benefits to their own institutions’ public image. Soon white administrators wavered in their pronounced commitment to black colleges, a key component of Kennedy’s push to help improve black lives.
For instance, University of Wisconsin President Fred Harrington was hesitant to engage in collaborations with black colleges because he felt desegregation would negate the need for black colleges. He believed black colleges would become extinct, and the black talent on those campuses was better served at Wisconsin or other similar universities. Harrington went as far as attempting to recruit Samuel DeWitt Proctor, the president of North Carolina A&T, to lead an institute at Wisconsin. “We know you are doing vitally important work as the president of a predominantly Negro institution,” Harrington told Proctor. “We believe, however, that this Wisconsin role provides even larger opportunities for you.” Proctor declined, but Harrington’s attitude soon overtook the broader effort.
Attempts at system wide change and investment in black colleges were replaced by the largely symbolic effort to hire and enroll a limited number of black administrators and students at select majority-white campuses — for which administrators often sought media publicity. The distribution of resources to enhance black lives was not deemed as profitable as the image of investing in black lives.
Not much has changed over the past 60 years, as universities tout diversity initiatives, even as black college students report encountering racism on campuses.
Today, amid a public health crisis that disproportionately affects black people, college leaders are, once again, prioritizing institutional profit over black lives. The attempt to play football this fall is just the latest example. To proceed with a college football season contradicts universities’ recent public statements that tout “Black Lives Matter” or honor the life of Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights titan.
In many ways, the disproportionate number of black student-athletes preparing for their football seasons have become the figurative lab mice as some college leaders assess the feasibility of in-person classes. The presidents of Power 5 campuses voted in May to reopen athletic facilities, but some of them have since assessed that remote learning is necessary this fall. Meanwhile, dozens of students have tested positive this summer at many of the leading college football programs, such as the University of Texas, Louisiana State University and Clemson University, among others. And just last week, Rutgers University and Michigan State University quarantined their entire teams due to positive coronavirus cases.
In turn, as plans for major college football proceed as national coronavirus cases spike to record numbers, college presidents are silently upholding the long tradition of white administrators’ and white trustees’ disregard for, and resentment of, black lives on their campuses.