I get the concept of guarantee games for HBCUs and some other DI and DII colleges and universities that are financially constrained. The economic woes of some colleges are a situation likely to persist. I also get that wealthier colleges and universities want to play football teams in their non-conference schedule where they are virtually guaranteed a win. I also appreciate that guarantee games are not limited to football and extend other sports like basketball. But, because football ups the stakes in terms of dollars, disparate competition levels and potential devastating injuries, I think games in that sport deserve more attention.
There are notable benefits to these games for both sides. For HBCUs and others, playing high profile teams with television exposure has benefits: there is improved name recognition of the participating institution; there is the excitement of playing against the best and challenging players to see steep competition; there is the “honor” of being in the “big time.” There is also an opportunity for the students to travel to new places, meet new people and have new experiences. There is also the chance to reconnect with high school player friends from one’s own or neighboring schools.
The fiscal upsides are real also. For many cash poor colleges and universities, payment for playing can support a goodly portion of the annual athletic budget. Note the dollars do not just support the team that is playing; it supports all athletics. Yes, as Professor Oliver McGee at Howard University (and a former ACE Fellow) points out, cash is king for HBCUs. Lopsided scores are expected, like final scores are 61 to 0 or something similar. To be sure, miracles can and do happen. While perhaps embarrassing for some players, the benefits of high profile playing (and the $) and the “fun” of it apparently outweigh the rout.
Could we ask who should be making these decisions? Coaches, ADs, Presidents or players?
Despite the identified “positives,” the payment to these smaller, less successful teams leaves me troubled on several fronts. And I know that my position is unpopular. ADs spend time searching for these games and negotiating the best deals. But, before judging my conclusions, at least consider my arguments first.
First, I am bothered by pre-season planning that is designed to produce only wins. I understand why this happens – for rankings, records, practice, playoffs and bowl games options. But, there is something to be said for non-conference games that are the opposite of “gimmes” – out of conference games that challenge and test a team’s meddle. In a culture of winning and given how the sports’ post-season selections are made, winning (even when bought) has benefits. In fact, some institutions refuse to play certain out-of–conference teams pre-season, lest they lose and suffer the accompanying consequences, including humiliation. This even happens in Division III.
Second, I am worried about injuries, and they have happened. Look at the situation now facing Devon Gales from Southern University who was paralyzed in a game against the University of Georgia (an institution that has stepped up to help defray the player’s medical costs and honor him). If the information is correct, Southern received $650,000 for playing that game. Howard University apparently had a half a dozen players injured in their first two games of 2015. Not good by any measure, although injuries are a part of football and it has been argued that the “damage” to players in no worse than usual for the less competitive team. For the record, similar injury issues are diminished in basketball for instance.
Third, I understand playing to win but some of the scores are so ridiculous, you wonder why more of the games were not shortened. I understand that the dominant team brings in its third and fourth string players onto the field; perhaps that is their only chance to play on national TV all season too. That’s a plus. I appreciate the humiliation of “gimme points” as in allowing a field goal or touchdown; it feels like charity. But, good sportspersonship would suggest not putting the pedal to the metal against a totally under-matched opponent. Seems like the phrase others use makes sense: pay to slay.
Fourth, it is my sense that there is something morally offensive in all this although it is hard to capture in words. It feels like sending lambs to the slaughter or feeding meat to captive lions. It gives me the sense that black lives matter less, or at least some student lives. However, many minority players are participating on both teams so my argument does not hold too much water. Putting a stop to these games raises the issue of libertarian paternalism/maternalism. Why should we protect students if they and their institutions have no desire to stop the guarantee games?
Fifth and finally, motivated by the holiday season, we are in the spirit of giving. But, in a strange way, the “gift” of pay-to-play dollars to HBCUs and other institution seems less like a gift and more like a taking. It is a taking of physical well-being, a taking of dignity on some level (whether or not acknowledged) and a taking advantage of those institutions/players less well-heeled and less skilled in exchange for a win — as in winner takes all in America.
Guarantee dollars are, for me, the gift that keeps on taking. It reminds me of someone forced by a Raja to take an exotic white elephant as a gift. The problem with the gift: the costs of keeping and feeding the elephant. Fiscally struggling colleges must take the gift, but they pay for it in other ways. And, yes, I appreciate that guarantee games are not the only issue or challenge facing HBCUs and other colleges/universities.
Ask yourself this: if you had a kid who was playing football for one of the dollar receiving schools, would you be happy with your son playing in a guarantee game? Would you be cheering on the sideline and feeling proud as opposed to exploited? Would this be the message you want your son to receive about how people are treated by bigger, wealthier, often white institutions?
If you can answer “yes,” far be it for me to change the outcome. But I wonder how many parents and guardians would seriously think “yes” is the best and only answer. There must be other options – options where giving is truly giving.
The saddest part for me is that this is one situation where I can see the problem but don’t have a suitable alternative to what we are now doing. There must be some quality answers out there.
In the spirit of giving, would you share those?
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.