Race impacts how we think about college football and the national championship

A long history of racism, segregation and power imbalances informs how we should think about the national championship historically in college football.

The United States finds itself at a crossroads in 2020. A country struggling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and limit deaths from COVID-19 sees other countries beginning to get back to some semblance of normalcy. States reopened businesses, withdrew restrictions on public safety precautions, and hoped for the best even as data suggest decisions were made prematurely and with interests other than public health at the forefront.

At the same time, the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other black lives at the hands of police reignited a charged discourse about the historical situation of not only black citizens but also indigenous populations and other people of color in the United States.

On the heels of Memorial Day celebrations, protests have strained the demands for social distancing. In this case, however, the strain is due not in the interest of leisure but a public redress of grievances.

Both the pandemic and the discourse around race relate heavily to college football. In a sport where nearly half the Division I participants are black, football players at universities have a unique opportunity to band together and effect change at their institutions and across society more broadly. At the same time, black players are disproportionately taking the risk of returning for the sake of preserving revenue streams for their universities and entertaining the fan base.

We recently saw University of Texas football players put forward demands for change at their institution while withdrawing their unpaid labor for recruitment and fundraising efforts, even as more than a dozen Longhorn football players tested positive for COVID-19. Heisman hopeful Chuba Hubbard threatened to lead an Oklahoma State walkout after speaking out against the public message being put forward by his head coach, as they too put themselves at greater risk of contracting the virus.

The country now grapples with legacies of racial bias and reconciles those histories against the ideals of equality espoused in the foundational documents of the United States, all while doing so within the framework of a public health crisis. In that environment, college football must grapple with the persistence of power imbalances between black players that disproportionately serve as the fodder for our entertainment and staffs and administrators that dictate the terms of engagement.

As part of that effort, this week’s Sunday — now Monday — Morning Quarterback looks back at one particular part of this power imbalance that continues to inform college football history to the present. Whether we choose to recognize it or not, race informs how we think about the national championship in college football and who historically has been eligible to compete for titles.

Fans of other sports such as baseball understand the question marks that inevitably arise when considering the great teams and players of the past, especially in eras when segregation reigned not only over sport but across society. Rarely, though, do college football fans ask whether asterisks belong on championships of yesteryear.

That is precisely what we will do this week as (Monday) Morning Quarterback returns from its late-spring sabbatical. The need to critically reflect on how racially-driven restrictions inform who gets to compete for the national championship in the present college football landscape is long overdue, so let’s rectify that oversight.

The basic ephemerality of the “national championship” as a concept

Before we go any further with this discussion, it is imperative that we acknowledge a key reality about the national championship in college football. While the period from 1992 onward is marked by a series of efforts to set up a national championship game at the end of the season, there has never been a definitive system for crowning the best team in any season.

The NCAA manages its own list of official selectors whose proclamations count just as much as the winner of the College Football Playoff. That is why we saw UCF claim a national championship after the 2017 season when the computer system operated by Wes Colley tabbed the Knights at No. 1 in its final set of rankings for the year.

We have talked about national championship claims in this space in the past, recognizing that more often than not multiple teams have enjoyed legitimate claims to the title. What is most notable for the purposes of today’s discussion, however, is identifying which teams were afforded the opportunity to claim a national championship.

What you find on the NCAA’s list of national champions as chosen by NCAA-sanctioned selectors is a steady stream of primarily white institutions (PWIs). In a period when segregation reigned over the sport, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) had no chance to earn accolades as the top team across the land.

The formation of HBCU football as separate from PWI football

Ultimately, college football lived under the same “separate but equal” restrictions that segregated so many other aspects of American society. Under a system that started two days after Christmas in 1892, when visiting Biddle College downed Livingstone on a snowy North Carolina afternoon, black college football functioned for decades in a world of its own. Ineligible to compete for national championships, black colleges set up their own infrastructure parallel to white college football.

This mirrored other segregated institutions such as the black press, which took up the mantle of selecting national champions from among the ranks of black colleges. The Pittsburgh Courier started designating a black national champion beginning in 1920, and just as in football played by primarily white institutions a number of polls and selectors emerged to designate their own champions each season.

At various points from the introduction of the Pittsburgh Courier poll in 1920 through the 1970s, games like the Orange Blossom Classic (hosted by Florida A&M from 1933 through 1978) served as de facto national championship games. Classics of this nature, though, were invitationals rather than true bowl games that featured champions from predetermined conferences.

When many HBCU programs joined the NAIA in hopes of playing for a national championship against PWIs, the NCAA came down hard on those programs. When the NCAA introduced separate college and university divisions beginning in 1956, setting up four regional bowl games as reward for top college division teams, HBCUs once again were shut out of the opportunity on the table.

In this way, HBCU institutions were shunted off to the sidelines and prevented from attaining opportunities available to even the smallest PWI programs. Unable to gain greater public recognition from a system that denied any chance to play for even the smallest rewards, HBCUs continued to operate in their own world through the 1960s.

Increasingly, however, the acceleration of integration on PWI teams opened up individual opportunities for black players while further stifling those opportunities for HBCU institutions.

The impact of integration on who earned national championship claims

Integration in college football was a slow, protracted process that really did not ramp up until after World War II. Before the war, only one-quarter of current FBS teams had ever fielded a black player on their roster. These opportunities were concentrated especially in the western United States, throughout the Midwest territory of the Big Ten, and in the traditional birthplace of the sport in the northeast.

Integration came more slowly to the south, especially in places where black colleges and universities had developed ingrained cultures. At the same time, “separate but equal” never really did constitute equal in any sense of funding.

Consider the case of Florida A&M, discussed at length in Derrick E. White’s phenomenal book Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football. The Rattlers, one of the most decorated HBCUs in college football history, watched as upstart Florida State University blossomed from a women’s college into a growing institution siphoning off funds from the HBCU in the same city.

By the 1960s, the FAMU law school was disbanded and transferred to Florida State. The Seminoles received funds to build out a new stadium, while the Rattlers fell behind in terms of facilities. When integration came, the targets were invariably black colleges and universities. After all, the inverse — expanding Florida A&M at the expense of Florida State — was never considered as an option.

What that meant is that, ultimately, integration was a one-way street. While HBCU teams signed white players and integrated their own locker rooms, the dynamics of college football were such that HBCUs would never be afforded the same opportunities as their PWI counterparts no matter how much success they might historically have enjoyed in the sport.

How HBCU treatment informs the present college football landscape

The present college football landscape is informed by this legacy of exclusion. While Florida A&M won the inaugural I-AA football tournament in 1978, HBCUs have increasingly turned away from NCAA opportunities in football and instead forged their own traditions.

The Celebration Bowl, first held in 2015, serves as the newest means of determining a national champion among HBCU programs. In creating this bowl game, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) effectively turned their backs on the annual NCAA Division I FCS playoffs and embraced their unique position as HBCU conferences.

While HBCUs have opted to refrain from fully integrating into a system that long excluded them, that legacy of exclusion has now transferred over to programs outside the Power Five conference structure. What that did as well was alter the power dynamic at the top of Division I, where black players are coached by primarily white head coaches. It is this dynamic that increasingly comes to the forefront when we discuss race relations within college football programs, as we have seen recently at schools such as Oklahoma State and Texas.

By excluding black colleges from the opportunity to play for the national championship over the years, the NCAA and especially the member institutions that comprise the Power Five set up blueprints for how to exclude smaller PWI schools as well from national championship opportunities.

In the end, race has indelibly shaped the structure of college football’s postseason at the top level as a test case for how powerhouse programs have filtered out unwanted challengers over the years since the heyday of black college football.