Members of the Southwestern Athletic Conference are scheduled to meet today about the prospects of athletic competition this fall. The majority of the schools are located in geographic hotspots where coronavirus infections are breaking records on a near-daily basis, and where politics are limiting public support for mask-wearing and other safeguards against the virus.
In a recent interview, SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland said that any discussions on suspending or canceling competition in football and other sports this fall would be more than just an announcement, but an exercise in contractual negotiation.
“When you start looking at creating a college football season, a college volleyball season, a college soccer season, it takes time to get those things ready, ” says McClelland. “You can’t just pull the plug. There are contracts. There are TV deals that are on the table. [I’m] talking about travels, airlines. So, all of these things have to be discussed within our Council of Presidents.”
While there is no question about the pressure public institutions face in re-opening campuses for the fall, there should be a dispute with the wisdom of citing financials as a reason for the SWAC, the largest and most well-branded HBCU conference in the country, to force black athletes into close-quarters competition in a matter of weeks.
If moral imperative and political autonomy ruled in the HBCU community, the SWAC likely would have been the first conference to pull the plug on the fall sports season. But because SWAC schools represent some of the most science-skeptical, politically stubborn, information addled states easily recognizable on a U.S. map, the conference now finds itself outpaced by its Division I counterpart Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and both Division II conferences, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
For whatever political pressure is being applied to the SWAC by corporate partners, state lawmakers, or even fans and boosters — it will pale in comparison to the headlines that will be generated if one or dozens of SWAC athletes become infected in the process of practice or competition, and the plug has to be pulled on the season anyway. Now that the nation has been primed for black colleges to lead the industry on safeguarding black bodies against infection, quarantined isolation, and death, why does the SWAC feel that it is not enough sociopolitical cover to make an authoritative and clear statement on suspending the season?
Unlike opening campuses for business, football teams can’t compete with 50 percent of a player or coaching roster to ensure social distancing. The rules of the game will not change to account for respiratory droplets that can leap from person to person on any given play. There will be no curfew rules that will keep players from interacting amongst themselves on or off the field to guarantee social distancing.
Moreover, if there were to be financial gains made by playing a handful of college football games in the middle of a pandemic in the region suffering most from the viral outbreak, the portion belonging to the SWAC or its schools would not exceed the benefits yielded for the corporate partners which are leveraging the SWAC for exposure to fans and stakeholders.
If our most powerful Division I conference is so hard-pressed to generate revenue-bearing opportunities for non-black corporate investors that the health of black people is the second priority on the list, then did we truly even have a conference to call our own in the first place?
Maybe in a few minutes or hours, the SWAC will release a statement confirming all of our hopes for the conference as an extension of the HBCU community’s bold commitment to preserving black people from being ravaged by Covid-19 as the world heads into a perilous fall weather season.
But if SWAC presidents and chancellors took this long to make a call, and if its commissioner has to meld health with revenue as a caveat for what makes the decision more complex than meets the eye, it says a lot about the state of control we think we have over our own fortunes or our own lives.