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HBCU Money Games: Selling Out Hits All-Time Low

How ugly have the first two games of Savannah State’s 2012 season been? To use a biblical term– abominable! In fact, the best question to ask about the direction of teams like Savannah State comes from The World’s All-Time Best Seller. Not to get into theology, but thinking of SSU’s losses to Oklahoma State and Florida State respectively, I am reminded of the question Jesus asked his disciples: For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his soul?

Exchange the words “man” for “program” and there you have the Savannah State situation in a nutshell.  The last two weeks this historical black university has subjected itself to brutal losses at the hands of major college football programs for $850,000.

These “money games” are nothing new in college football. Teams at the lower end of the Division I spectrum have been handed wads of cash to play teams they have no business competing against for years and in return, high-profile schools get to beat up on them. But the Tigers took it to a whole new level over the past weeks, losing the two games by a combined score of 139-0. And the Florida State game ended early thanks to divine intervention lightning.

While SSU Athletic Director Donald Sterling has said he plans on playing at least two “money games” per year, head coach coach Steve Davenport sounded as if he wasn’t so sure about that proposition.

“You get paid for certain things, but I don’t know if at the end of the day, some things are worth the payments you get,” Davenport told the Associated Press. “But we’ll see. Those are conversations we’ll have.”

A conversation Savannah State, as well as some other HBCUs should be having is whether or not they belong in Division I. Losses like this may help the bottom line of a struggling athletic department and may be good for a cupcake win but in the long haul, they are neither good for the student-athletes or the HBCU brand in particular.

To say Savannah State is no football powerhouse is an understatement. The football team won less than 20 games total in their first ten years as a Division I-AA Independent football team. Last season, the team was the worst in the MEAC conference, posting a 1-10 record overall. Appalachian State ’06, Savannah State is not.

Simply put, Savannah State had no business out on the field with either OK State or FSU the past two weeks. Surely the coaches knew this and in their heart of hearts, even the players had to know this. I’m sure they practiced hard and talked a good game. But everyone knew what the end result would be. The coaches and administration can spin to the media all they want about “competition” but simply put, they did their program a huge disservice. What self-respecting athlete would want to play for a school that would embarrass itself and them by playing in games they have no hope, or even intention, of winning?

Prior to the FSU game, Davenport was reported to have told his team “We’re going to forget about Oklahoma State, and next week we’re going to forget about Florida State.” This was prior to the FSU game, according to the Savannah Morning News.

This is not to pick on Savannah State exclusively, though. While this may be an extreme case, it is far from a solitary one. Many cash-strapped HBCUs find themselves auctioning off games to the highest bidders in an effort to keep afloat athletic programs that just don’t have the resources to compete on a Division I level.

I witnessed this situation first hand during my time at Winston-Salem State University. WSSU announced its intention to move to Division I during my freshman year and spent the majority of my time there in transition to the MEAC. For a multitude of reasons, the money necessary to complete the move was not there in the end. Even though I was against moving back to Division II at the time, I can concede that I’m happier with them being a competitive DII school than seeing my university become the laughingstock of the college football world.

“I hate to see players put into positions where there is that much of a disparity,” the former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said in a telephone interview before Saturday’s game. Referring to Oklahoma State’s 84-point win, he added, “To see that score that we saw last week, I don’t see any positives in that.”

Me either, Lloyd. A wise man once told me, if you can’t pay for the car note and the gas, maybe you don’t need a BMW.

Overall, HBCUs are proud institutions with a spectacular history of doing more with less and making it work. No one game can change that. But in today’s Division I football, the lines between the “haves” and the “have nots” are greater than ever. Schools like Savannah State must fully weigh the cost of remaining in Division I and if they can’t do it without laying down while allowing big-time programs to get their jollies off of them, perhaps they should reassess their aspirations.

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