David Thomas isn’t your normal academic. President of one of the nation’s most esteemed Black colleges, Thomas once played center and linebacker on the football field and, as a foreign-exchange student, competed overseas in basketball. He realizes the cultural significance of sports and understands its place in the world.
That’s why his decision to cancel Morehouse College’s 2020 football season is so jarring.
While hundreds of NCAA universities feverishly debate contingency plans to play football around a pandemic, Thomas last week ended all discussion on the topic at his Division II school in Atlanta. More than two months before the season was scheduled to kickoff, he pulled the plug. Though unrelated, Morehouse’s announcement Friday came amid unrest in the college sports world, as well as the nation. COVID-19 cases are surging across the country, with at least five states suspending reopening plans, including football-playing behemoths Texas and Florida. Dozens of FBS schools that reopened for voluntary workouts are now battling outbreaks in the double figures. Four teams have suspended workouts, and three more have had or have at least 20 players in quarantine or isolation.
After a month of forward movement toward an on-time kickoff, the backpedaling has begun. It’s left administrators asking one daunting question. Can we really play a fall football season? “We can’t,” answers Thomas in an interview this weekend with Sports Illustrated, “or at least I’m not smart enough to know how we can. Every president and athletic director needs to look at [the positive tests]. We’re only in the training portion, and we’re having these test results come back. How can we go forward with a season, given what we know about the virus, and think we won’t accelerate transmission?”
The immediate fate of college football has never felt so fragile. In the small-college ranks of the sport, many believe Morehouse has paved the way for other programs to do the same. Small universities and historically black colleges are seriously toying with the idea of scrapping the 2020 season.
While these institutions exist on a different economical stratosphere as FBS schools, they hold similarities to Morehouse. They lack the financial incentive, from rich TV deals, to take the risk of playing a contact sport amid a pandemic; administrators fear infections starting on the football field and spreading into the classroom, a full-blown outbreak on a campus of predominantly Black students (the Black population has proven to be more vulnerable); and some schools can’t commit to the additional testing and sanitation protocols because of a lack of resources.
Decision time looms. For those in Division I, a six-week preseason program is scheduled to begin in less than a month, July 24, while those at Division II are planning for an early-August start. “I don’t think the Morehouse announcement is going to be the last such announcement,” says Charles McClelland, the commissioner of the SWAC, one of four HBCU conferences in the NCAA—two in D-I and two in D-II. “There will be some schools that won’t participate in football.”
Morehouse isn’t the only NCAA college to cancel its football season. It is one of three, so far. The other two programs are on the Division III level, the lowest rung of the NCAA that is prohibited from offering athletic scholarships. Bowdoin College, located in Maine, announced its decision earlier in June, while New York-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute made its announcement Tuesday.
On the D-I and D-II level, at least five games have been canceled already, including four featuring HBCU programs. Several schools are anticipating a late start to the season, including those in the FCS Patriot League, whose athletes won’t return to campus until its students do. Some D-II HBCU teams are considering playing the minimum of seven games this season and potentially kicking off two weeks after Labor Day weekend. That list includes Clark Atlanta, a sister school of Morehouse, both of them members of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
George T. French, the president at Clark Atlanta, expects the move will have an impact on other SIAC schools. Within the next week, the conference is expected to make a league-wide ruling on the 2020 season, says French, chairman of the SIAC’s Council of Presidents. Clark Atlanta has not yet announced plans for its season, but French is in full support of Thomas’s decision, calling it “courageous” and rooted in science. “It doesn’t make sense to me to have a football season this year—for any school—with the virus rates going up,” he says.
Another D-II HBCU conference, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, is still gathering information before making a decision on its season, says commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. If a majority of the conference can’t play football, she believes that the CIAA governing board will want to suspend or postpone the season. She is concerned about the spiking virus cases in North Carolina, home to seven of the conference’s 12 members. She worries, too, about the CIAA’s cozy campus environments. The conference’s largest institution has an enrollment of about 6,000. “We’re all going to be in the same boat of having to isolate students. Well, where can you?” she asks. “A lot of our campuses are small.”
In the D-I SWAC, McClelland has his own hot spots to worry about. Many of his schools are located in southern states whose numbers are surging. A tentative plan to return to voluntary workouts July 6 has already been delayed to July 20. The SWAC has a drop-dead date of Oct. 17 to start its season before the league seriously considers a spring season, says McClelland.
The NCAA is advising schools to create a “bubble” around their football team, distancing staff and players from community and on-campus contacts. That’s more difficult for programs without separate athletic dining halls and dormitories. “When it comes to playing, resources will be a factor,” McClelland says. “The more resources you have, the better bubble you can create.”
Morehouse couldn’t create a bubble at all, one of the primary reasons for Thomas’s decision—six weeks in the making, he says. He made the decision out of fear that he couldn’t keep his general student body safe. Without an athlete-only dining hall and residential building, he had no way of separating Morehouse’s 2,000 some-odd students from its student-athletes. During the process of making the move, he asked himself a fairly easy question. Why am I in this business? The answer is to educate, not to produce athletic opportunities, he says. “I would hope every president asks themselves the same.”
However, Thomas acknowledges that each school must make its own decision in accordance with its situation. Football at Morehouse is not a revenue-generating operation as it is at many programs on the FBS level. In fact, Morehouse football loses roughly $2 million each year, Thomas says. Already, the pandemic shutdown has cost the school at least $5 million, and officials are expecting enrollment to drop by at least 25% this fall. Only underclassmen will take on-campus classes with all others learning virtually. All students and staff will be tested and required to wear a mask while on campus.
The frequency in which a football team would need testing drove the price high enough that Thomas feared he couldn’t afford it. Tests were priced at $100 each. Morehouse dresses 67 players for a home game, putting the cost at more than $30,000 to test each player before home games. For many FBS athletic departments, that’s chump change. Not for Morehouse, which has very little sponsorships and no million-dollar television deal.
“I can see my D-I counterparts saying, ‘Yeah, you can make that decision because it’s not going to matter to 10 million people who want to tune in and watch Alabama-Clemson or Michigan-Michigan State and down the line,’” he says. “I don’t want to get on any high horse. I’m thankful for the luxury. I don’t have the same complications as the president of UGA, Alabama or Ohio State in making this decision.”
For Thomas, another factor was attendance, Morehouse’s only real revenue-generating football endeavor. In fact, for many programs, attendance is their only money-making athletic venture. Limited attendance or no crowd at all may signal significant red numbers for those athletic departments that cannot lean on rich TV deals and big-money donations. Many officials at HBCU and small-college programs are asking themselves a question: Is it worth it? “All of our schools depend on attendance,” says McWilliams, with the CIAA. “We need bodies on campus and in dorms and in stadiums.”
For some officials, even a limited attendance model makes playing worth it because of their stadiums' physical layouts. Jackson State is one of the lucky ones. The Tigers play in a 60,000-seat stadium, normally only filling it by one-third. JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson can space out his fans to adhere to social distancing regulations. “But if you got a 10,000-seat stadium,” Robinson says, “that’s going to affect you a lot.”
As for testing, many HBCU programs are receiving grants, and some have even found insurers to cover the cost, says McClelland. Almost all schools are slashing on travel and staff to save on expenses. At JSU, Robinson froze at least nine athletic staff positions, eliminated the 21 graduate assistant posts and trimmed the number of competitions for his Olympic sports.
Many other college athletic departments are carrying out similar cuts. These are not exclusive to Black colleges. In fact, Kenn Rashad, editor and publisher of HBCUSports.com, says a false narrative exists that the pandemic has so financially impacted Black colleges that they cannot function. It’s just not true. No HBCU has returned to voluntary workouts because of safety reasons, not financial. “Given the situation with the pandemic and we’re seeing an uptick in positive results, we still have institutions calling in these athletes and in some cases asking them to sign waivers,” says Rashad. “You don’t see HBCUs doing this. It’s a testament to them that they truly have in mind the safety of the student-athletes first and foremost.”
That’s why Thomas made the excruciating decision to end Morehouse’s football season before it began. He admits that the move was not universally praised from the SIAC Council of Presidents. “There is not consensus that my decision is the right one,” he says. Still, he stands behind it. The school will honor its football scholarships—it divides 36 scholarships among the team—and will continue to pay its head coach. However, other staff positions are in limbo.
And what about the future of Morehouse football beyond this fall? As a former footballer himself, Thomas scoffs at the question. Morehouse football is only taking a year sabbatical. “I don’t have any plans to use this moment to make a deep departure to what’s been our athletic portfolio,” he says. “‘Now’s the time to end football. It’s too expensive!’ Nope. I’m not saying that.”