Will Florida Memorial COVID-19 Controversy Make HBCUs Stand Back and Stand By on Spring Sports?

The single historically Black institution bold enough to field a full slate of competitive sports in one of the nation's most notorious COVID-19 hotspots has canceled two of its women's sports programs amidst growing concerns of a campus virus outbreak. 

In a month where HBCUs have been praised for low numbers of COVID-19 infections and disrupted operations, Florida Memorial University is in full-blown crisis mode. More COVID-19-related communications have come out from its executive leadership in the past two weeks than in the past three months combined, following a story broken by HBCU Gameday on increasing dissatisfaction among players, coaches, and parents about the school's handling of infections

Florida Memorial benefits from being in a state more known for ill-advised restriction lifting than for safety measures that can protect residents from their mask-rejecting political stances and social distancing fatigue. Floridians and the state’s health department may accept dozens of campus-infections as less than an outbreak. FMU President Jaffus Hardrick may blame the media, outspoken students, and misinterpreted information for the school's coronavirus controversy. 

The harsh truth is that Florida Memorial is mirroring the state's sociopolitical approach and paying the same price as its Governor Ron DeSantis and other officials statewide who are daring the virus to get bigger and badder -- adverse reaction from stakeholders.

Consider the numbers; FMU will continue to hold out hope for the Lions football team to play games this season after confirming more than 69 cases of COVID-19 infection on campus so far. In comparison, the University of Florida just hours ago suspended football for 19 cases discovered in the last few days. 

It is a stark contrast from FMU's sister institutions throughout the HBCU sector. Black colleges nationwide halted sports, reduced student bodies on campus, and received national praise for their caution. 

It doesn't matter what Hardrick or any other president tells us about numbers being under control or how safety guidance is given to the campus community. If safety is the number one priority, then prohibition, not preventative behavior, is the preferred methodology. 

But even with their caution, it appears that nothing will save Florida Memorial or other Black colleges from disastrous public health prospects in just a few months. Several schools and athletic conferences have announced plans to welcome back sports following the turn of the calendar. 

If Florida Memorial is the worst-case example of what can go wrong with a welcome wagon rolling out too early, then why are HBCUs so anxious to sneak beneath such a low bar to offer sports in a few months? How has the calculus changed that a deadly virus that is certain to grow more lethal and more infectious in the fall and winter months, which prompted institutions to hit the pause button on sports this fall, will be ready for a springtime comeback season?

For all of the unique factors surrounding Florida Memorial's coronavirus saga, every HBCU should be keenly aware that its situation is not an anomaly or an exception. It is the guidepost for other HBCUs to recognize the rules about containment. 

Black colleges cannot contain students who do not want to socially distance. They cannot contain students or athletes from other institutions without shared testing and quarantine standards. They cannot contain messaging when students and parents elect to share their stories. 

And these things are before the conversations on who pays for the equipment and technology to ensure that Black colleges can even give the appearance of non-negligence. 

Should HBCUs consider playing sports this spring? We know what happened when one lone team tried it in the fall, and now, winter is coming.