Last year, Sports Illustrated magazine compiled a ranking system that acknowledged the most valuable and desirable programs throughout college football’s five most powerful leagues.
Out of 69 Power 5 schools, the University of Wisconsin Badgers ranked seventh overall. The impressive ranking doesn’t hurt when it comes to recruiting.
With the recent commitment from four-star running back Darrion Dupree, the Badgers beat out the University of Illinois and Missouri in a tough competition to land one of its top sought-after players. Like many other top high school players nationwide, Dupree is a Black athlete attending a predominately white school.
While Wisconsin football is big, it doesn’t compare to the South’s obsession with college football, particularly the passionate fan base of the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
The late Marino Casem, a longtime Alcorn State and Southern University coach, once said, “On the East Coast, football is a cultural experience. In the Midwest, it’s a form of cannibalism. On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. And in the South, football is a religion, and Saturday is the holy day.”
The dominance displayed by the SEC and other schools in the South during the past 20 years is obvious by the number of national championships. Eighteen out of the last 20 college football champions were from schools in the South. The University of Alabama, alone, has won six.
The Alabama Crimson Tide football program has a long tradition of championship teams. Football legend Paul “Bear” Bryant coached three national championships between 1961 and 1966, but the winning streak suddenly hit a wall. Over the following four seasons, the Crimson Tide won only 28 games. Winning became much more difficult when the most talented Black athletes who would normally play at historically Black colleges or universities started attending white schools outside the South. Affirmative action was unnecessary in 1971, to convince a losing Bryant to sign the school’s first Black scholarship athlete. In 1973, he won his fourth national title.
It’s about race and culture, but it’s also about winning. Winning in college football is power, prestige, and money.
The subject of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a sore spot for conservatives nationwide. While DEI refers to organizational frameworks that promote “the fair treatment and full participation of all people,” it is also perceived as a liberal takeover of higher education.
Only hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down affirmative action in college admissions, one of Wisconsin’s top elected state officials signaled interest in attacking other ways colleges promote campus diversity. Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) suggested cutting scholarships and grants, among other programs that benefit minority students.
“We are reviewing the decision and will introduce legislation to correct the discriminatory laws on the books and pass repeals in the fall,” Vos tweeted in reply to a post suggesting the state take such measures.
Assembly Speaker Vos has emerged as a staunch opponent of DEI efforts, calling such programs “indoctrination.” He has previously suggested potential budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin system if it doesn’t phase out DEI offices at its campuses. The Republican plan seeks to cut over 180 DEI positions over the system’s 13 universities despite a projected record-high $7 billion state budget surplus. The state of Wisconsin is not alone. Republican lawmakers in at least a dozen other states have proposed more than 30 bills targeting DEI efforts in higher education to abolish DEI offices and end mandatory diversity training.
What is the message when the Wisconsin football program targets the signing of Black athletes for its highly successful football team while Republicans in the state legislature seek to eliminate scholarships designated for minority undergraduate students?
Football and basketball are the top two revenue-producing sports for colleges. Therefore, can we expect the same lawmakers to eventually thwart campus diversity efforts by denying athletic scholarships for Black players who are key contributors to football and basketball teams?
I believe Coach Bear Bryant answered that question decades ago. Wisconsin lawmakers are sending no mixed signals; the messages are clear.
The Black collegiate athlete and Black scholar are not valued the same. Students of all backgrounds need a positive and healthy learning environment to thrive. That would include Black students at predominately white institutions. Inclusion does not automatically mean a person is welcomed. When minority students feel unwelcome on campus and in the classroom because of their race, it destroys the healthy learning environment. It opens the argument that their underperformance is due to other factors. A student having the peace of mind of knowing that their presence is welcomed, fully supported, and not questioned allows them to perform at their highest level.
Josh Jones is a high school senior from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who received over $3 million in academic and athletic scholarships. The high school quarterback established school records for passing yards, passing touchdowns, and yards per game while maintaining a 4.1 GPA in the classroom. His choices of schools included Duke, Princeton, Dartmouth, North Carolina A&T, Navy, Air Force, and Army. With all the options available to him, the prized student-athlete chose an HBCU. North Carolina Central University may not be a Power 5 school with all the facilities and the big name, but he will be welcomed in ways he may not receive elsewhere.
David W. Marshall is the founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body, and author of “God Bless Our Divided America.” He can be reached at www.davidwmarshallauthor.com.