Rio Olympics Put HBCU Athletes on International Stage

Could the Summer Games change the focus of HBCU sports?

Several current and former HBCU athletes will begin their quests for gold this week, as the 2016 Summer Olympics begin in Rio tomorrow. Here’s the list, compiled from the most reliable sources HBCUs and Black Twitter could provide.

Current Students

Kendra Clarke — Johnson C. Smith University
Track and Field (Canada)

Tia Adana-Belle — Saint Augustine’s University
Track and Field (Barbados)

Thierry Sawadogo — Savannah State University
Swimming (Burkina and Faso)

Branden Valentine-Parris — Claflin University
Track and Field (Saint Vincent & The Grenadines)

Alumni

Chris Brown — Norfolk State University
Track and Field (Bahamas)

Roxroy Cato — Saint Augustine’s University
Track and Field (Jamaica)

Christina Epps — Coppin State University
Track and Field (United States)

Ramon Gittens — Saint Augustine’s University
Track and Field (Barbados)

Markeith Price — Tennessee State University
Track and Field (United States)

Jeff Henderson — Stillman College
Track and Field (United States)

Brandon Jones — Hampton University
Track and Field (Belize)

Yvette Lewis — Hampton University
Track and Field (Panama)

Francena McCorory — Hampton University
Track and Field (United States)

Michael Tinsley — Jackson State University
Track and Field (United States)

Most HBCU track and field programs have a distinguished history of producing great athletes, particularly Saint Augustine’s, the nation’s best track program, historically black or otherwise.

But track isn’t the only sport in which HBCUs compete nationally. The MEAC has captured national titles in women’s bowling three times in the last 15 years; two titles for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and one for North Carolina A&T State University.

Xavier University of Louisiana, perhaps the nation’s best historically black athletic program, competes for national championships in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s volleyball. But because the Rush and the Nuggets dominate the NAIA’s Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, and not the CIAA or SIAC, the programs and their coaches and athletes, go woefully under appreciated in the HBCU sports landscape.

To be fair, all HBCU success isn’t limited to non-revenue sports. Last year’s deep NCAA playoff run for Tuskegee football set attendance records, and created new keys for black college football success standards.

Virginia Union University advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II national women’s basketball tournament, behind the nation’s best player Kiana Johnson — four years after Shaw University won the D-II national women’s basketball title.

And then there was the inaugural Celebration Bowl, a showcase that brought the once ‘mythical’ black college football championship to life with NCA&T emerging as the winner in what could soon become a college football postseason staple with growing appeal.

But with that success, are HBCU athletics better positioned today then they were 30 years ago? NCAA Division I HBCUs are still the likeliest member schools to be ravaged by penalties for shortcomings in academic progress and compliance. With some exceptions like Southern, Bethune-Cookman and Hampton, very few of the programs make any money.

HBCUs used to be the destination for NFL coaches and scouts to find talent, dominant and undiscovered unlike. Now, black colleges are the home of the mid-to-late round sleepers, undrafted free agent ‘diamonds in the rough,’ and a pipeline to the league’s football operations workforce pipeline.

Our football and basketball programs are still the butt of SportsCenter one-liners and guaranteed ‘Ws’ for power conference warmups.

HBCUs aren’t alone; hundreds of colleges are playing the game to get along in major intercollegiate athletics — a scheme to build the mirage of a holistic campus experience, even at the expense of losing seasons and decreased opportunities in marketing and civic outreach.

But in all of the games that we play in higher education — sports, funding, diversity, political maneuvering — we’re never judged by the same rules. We’re never viewed as equitable partners in a similar struggle; just outliers using race as an expiring ticket to get into a contest that most folks know passed us by 25 years ago, through no real fault of our own.

But in some of these non-revenue sports, our talent stacks up with that of the rest of the world. Apparently, we’re training Olympians without multi-million dollar training facilities or expansive dorms. HBCUs can send more people to the Olympics in one year then we’ve sent to the NFL and NBA combined over the last two seasons.

Should we take a new approach to athletics? Should we focus on recruiting and developing the athletes who are the best in the country at their respective sports, even if that means we’re know to the world as women’s bowling and track and field powerhouses? Is it better to be known as the greatest at something most people care about every four years, then to come anywhere close to the ‘inferior’ label every fall and winter?

No one really has the answers, because they touch too many cultural, social and economic layers to grab with a single solution like all HBCUs moving to Division II, or pouring resources to dominate non-traditional sports.

But we all can agree that seven HBCU Olympians is a powerful thing, and something that, if possible, black colleges should consider as a new way forward in providing opportunities for student athletes, and building a brand of competitive respectability within our own communities.