As if more evidence was needed that crises plaguing the United States hit the African-American community even harder, black colleges and universities (HBCU) historically absorbed yet another big hit on Friday with Morehouse College canceling its fall sports season.
The University of Atlanta canceled the soccer and cross country season. By all indications, it is the first university program to cancel its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Morehouse President David Thomas told the campus community in a letter on the school’s website less than six weeks after it became one of the first universities to announce teacher and teacher layoffs and pay cuts due to to the public health emergency.
Morehouse was scheduled to open his soccer season on September 5 in Atlanta against Edward Waters College.
Morehouse sports news came at the same time as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), one of two NCAA Division I conferences comprised of all HBCUs, explaining in a virtual press conference how it would survive a fourth program leaving in three years, with Bethune-Cookman’s decision to move to the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) which was made official on Thursday.
So after the 2020-21 academic year, the MEAC will consist of just eight members with just six playing soccer, the minimum required to stay in Division I. The league has hired the Collegiate Sports Management Group, which works with others 19 NCAA members Power 5 Conferences, including the Southern Morehouse Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), to consult on how to attract new members and retain current ones.
MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas was confident in the future of the league. “I have no doubt in our minds that the MEAC will continue and improve as a conference,” he told reporters.
Howard President Wayne Frederick, Chairman of MEAC’s Board of Executive Directors, agreed: “We think our conference is strong, but we realize we have a lot of work to do.”
Frederick added that his school is faithful to the conference and so are the rest of the members, right now. Thomas added that Delaware State University officials, reportedly pursued by another conference following the move of the two Florida schools, have assured him that they were committed to the MEAC.
However, a similar declaration of conference unity and loyalty was made earlier this year after North Carolina state A&T announced it was leaving in 2021.
“Our schools were united at the time,” said Frederick, “but they have boards to respond to. … there will be pressure [on them]. Financial restrictions are only going to grow. “
In recent years, the MEAC contacted Division II to include schools, but with mixed success: North Central Carolina stood out on its return to the conference in 2010, but the state of Savannah and the state of Winston-Salem did not last. completely. members of time.
SIAC and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association programs are obvious candidates again, but Frederick said the consulting firm will take the lead in investigating potential newcomers.
The instability and uncertainty on the HBCU campuses resulting from the pandemic are clearly not slowing down. In late June, several signature soccer games have been canceled and the homecoming events were canceled or postponed. Several classic games, including the September 12 contests between Florida A&M and Southern in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Southern Heritage Classic game and the weekend in Memphis, Tennessee, have been canceled. Homecoming events at NC A&T, Winston-Salem and NC Central have also been canceled.
However, Morehouse’s move took it to a new level. While Thomas emphasized that winter sports were not yet affected, soccer and cross country would definitely not be played.
“I know this news will be very disappointing for our academic athletes, especially for our older adults,” wrote Thomas. “I can only ask for your understanding and respect for the fact that the university is prioritizing your health and safety above all else. We are committed to the principle that our athletes are first and foremost students. “
In discussing the next move for the MEAC, Thomas and Frederick also emphasized the high academic standards of their member schools and the priority given to off-campus development by their students.
However, the problem of income cannot be ignored. Both men said that with the two Florida schools deciding to move based on travel and geography, the MEAC will seek to add programs within its own footprint, the east coast from Delaware to South Carolina.
That includes, they said, considering predominantly white institutions, an intriguing investment considering that Hampton and NC A&T left for the Great South.
“Our first obligation,” said Frederick, “is to evaluate what makes our conference better and seek to match the footprint.” He added that he did not want athletic prowess to drive the decision, not with the unique mission that HBCUs have compared to predominantly white institutions.
“I want the athletes who come to the MEAC to win,” he said, “but as educational institutions, we should not be seen as passes for athletes.”
“We think our conference is strong, but we realize we have work to do.” – Howard President Wayne Frederick, President of MEAC’s Board of Executive Directors
There are real financial problems weighing in on the conference, even without the pandemic that complicates matters: ESPN’s contract for the annual Celebration Bowl in Atlanta between the MEAC and SWAC champions expires after this season. Two of MEAC’s perennial football powers, NC A&T (winners of four of the first five games) and Florida A&M, are gone. The game pays $ 1 million each side, a gold mine that has disrupted the economy and program decision-making at both conferences.
“We are sure it will continue,” said Thomas.
All of this comes when the MEAC celebrates its 50th anniversary. It was formed in 1970 and officially started the soccer competition the following year. Thomas spoke brilliantly about the history of the league and how the leaving schools built their profiles and their appeal in the same conference they were dropping out.
Thomas said: “We don’t know what the fall will be from an athletic point of view. … It is a very fluid and precarious situation. ”