Review of The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Hawkins, Billy; Cooper, Joseph; Carter-Francique, Akilah; Cavil, J. Kenyatta (eds.) The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Past, Present, and Persistence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. 270. Index, About the Editors, About the Contributors. $75 hardcover, $64.49 e-book.

Reviewed by Kristy L. McCray

It is only appropriate to begin this post by acknowledging my place of privilege in reading and reviewing this book. I have attended and worked at four different predominately white institutions (PWIs). I recently participated in a campus conference on diversity and inclusion at my current university, listening in on a session entitled “Teaching From a Position of Privilege.” Not to digress much further, but reading this book really spoke to my position of privilege as a white woman who was educated at and teaches at PWIs. In fact, that is one of the main reasons I wanted to review this book. As a graduate teaching assistant, creating the syllabus for the first course I would ever teach, The History of College Sport, I was given four syllabi previously used by others in the department. Not a single one utilized a book such as this, with a focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and as I compiled my reading list, the predominant literature in the field did not seem to emphasize HBCUs as sites of “college sport.” Admittedly, this deficit in my initial course should have been corrected in the following semesters, but as an overworked GA who was anxious to finish my PhD, seeking out a book such as this was not made priority enough. However, I was more than happy to jump at the chance to read and review this book. As a sport manager by academic training, a sport sociologist by personal interest, and a social justice advocate and educator by trade, this book resonated with me on varying levels. Not only is it applicable to sport history courses, but it could be used in athletic administration/business courses, student affairs and education courses, and sport sociology courses.


Rowman and Litlefield, 2015.

My initial excitement in reading the book was, admittedly, entirely based on the title and nothing more. As I made time to fit this book into my schedule, I thought about my expectations for the text. I was hoping to learn more about a basic history and overview of HBCUs and HBCU athletics: part I, check. I was hoping to learn about the current experiences of black athletes at HBCUs, from a variety of angles, such as revenue-generating sports, female athletes, a comparison to PWIs, current issues and trends: parts II and III, check. I also hoped to find recommendations and solutions for the future: part IV, check. While I encountered a few minor frustrations, overall, this book was immensely gratifying and applicable to my work and interests in sport management and sport sociology.

Many of the authors engage in this material through a critical lens or framework, such as black feminism, critical race theory, intersectionality, or epistemological racism. In tackling this type of text, utilizing a critical paradigm is, well, critical.  There is ample data and narrative to support many arguments and engage the reader, from chapter 2’s storytelling of “Big Ben” Cavil at Wiley College or C. Vivian Stringer’s tale of washing her team’s uniforms at home in chapter 3. A common and recurring theme is one oft-mentioned in the concerns of sport sociologists: athletes who do not build identities or create lives outside of their sport face more difficulties, both in playing their sports, as well as transitioning out of or retiring from sports. The argument is made—and supported—throughout the text that HBCUs provide more well-rounded experiences for their student-athletes.

Chapter 4 (“The Culture of Revenue-Producing Sports at HBCUs: The Experiences of Black Male Student-Athletes”) could serve as a handy guide for coaches, student affairs administrators, or athletic support staff on how to support black male athletes, particularly those in revenue-producing sports. Though the discussion on support systems could be more robust, this chapter is practically a how-to guide on supporting athletes who face unique challenges. By comparing the experiences of those black male athletes at PWIs and HBCUs, the authors make the argument, backed significantly by empirical research in the fields of sociology, psychology, and education, that men’s basketball and football players have better experiences and outcomes while playing at HBCUs. In addition to serving as a guide for practitioners, this chapter is well-rounded enough to be inserted as supplemental material into courses such as sports sociology, athletic administration, or coaching administration.

This theme of encouraging outcomes for black athletes at HBCUs is continued in chapter 5, “Athletic Migration of Black Athletes.” This chapter’s focus on athletes who initially attended PWIs, before transferring—or migrating—to HBCUs uses critical race theory as a framework for the treatment of black men at the two differing types of institutions. In addition to outlining the literature supporting black male success at HBCUs, the chapter also offers concrete ideas for those looking to implement or bolster programs to foster student success on campus. This chapter is all the more compelling for the narrative of the experience of black athletes: isolation, exploitation, microassaults, marginalization, and racism experienced on PWIs.

Chapter 8 (“The Economic State of HBCUs and Their Athletic Programs: The Financial Relevance and Viability of HBCU Athletic Programs”) seemed best used in a course on the business of running college sport, or inserted into a course on the history and/or reform of college athletics. The amount of data provided in a mere 12 pages is staggering. Though the chapter’s purpose was to “examine the success and challenges of…HBCU athletic departments’ economic and financial viability” (p. 167), the chapter’s greatest strength was in simply providing HBCU financial data, which speaks for itself. For example, Tables 8.1 and 8.2 provide information on the percentage of athletic department budget derived from student/university subsidy monies. PWIs ranked in the top 20 athletic departments by revenue have five schools that receive no subsidy money, with the highest at 11.35%. However, the top-ranked HBCUs receive between 54.14% and 89.28% of their revenue in subsidies. Sometimes, numbers speak louder than words, and the tables in this chapter provide just the data needed for this message.

Under the provocative title of “Separate, Unequal, and Irrelevant: HBCU Revenue Sports,” chapter 9 provides further data on the inequality between HBCUs and PWIs. But the chapter’s greatest strength is in its radical premise that to ensure the longevity and success of HBCU athletics, these schools should leave the NCAA. The authors explore the deficits and assets that HBCU athletic departments bring to the table—though the assets are often seen as detrimental as well, leaving me to wonder if the authors were being tongue in cheek in offering “facilities infrastructure” as an asset when schools such as Grambling State are experiencing student boycotts over crumbling facilities. Either way, the chapter points the way toward recommendations for the future, the final section of this book.

It is my personal peeve when a book spends 200 plus pages detailing some woe or devastation facing college athletics, only to end with a feeble solution—or no solution at all! I was pleased to see that this book incorporated “action items” along the way, from hiring more black faculty to offering more support systems on campuses for athletes. Beyond these suggestions sprinkled throughout earlier chapters, the last section devotes two chapters entirely toward future plans. Acknowledging the dire state of HBCU finances, especially within athletics, chapter 10 (“Financing HBCU Athletics: Men’s Basketball—Problems and Opportunities”) offers a solution through creating a “Black National Championship” in men’s basketball. Despite coming in at just under four pages, the proposal is thorough, but succinct, and gives alternative, “backup” ideas for those naysayers who might dismiss the recommendation at first glance.

The last full chapter in the book further outlines the academic and athletic failings of HBCUs and co-opts proposed guidelines for reform from the University of Pennsylvania’s report, “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities” (p. 237). An easy to follow table outlines the guidelines as proposed by Penn, with the authors’ spin on how to engage HBCU athletics in reform. For example, the guideline stating “advocate for social and economic justice; be vocal about the underrepresentation of blacks in corporate and government leadership” is adapted for HBCU athletics: “athletic administration should work with upper administration to apply for and participate in federal assistance programs such as President Barack Obama’s HBCU Initiative” (p. 238). These helpful guidelines are exactly what sport practitioners—and students who are future administrators—should see in the literature.

It is important to note that solutions are not just held for the final chapters. For example, chapter 5 (“Athletic Migration Experiences of Black Athletes”) ends with a brief list of recommendations for improving the experiences of student-athletes at PWIs, as well as HBCUs. The main recommendation, however, focuses on hiring more faculty and staff of color, and recruiting a more diverse student body: “Nearly every participant mentioned how they felt out of place at the HWCU they attended largely because the small numbers of black people who were at the school were members of the athletic teams” (p. 121). (This sentiment particularly hits home as my institution is currently engaging in a conversation to hire more staff and faculty of color after a recent student protest, which culminated a list of student requests that ensure students of color feel safer and welcome on campus.)

Chapter 3 (“Black Female Athlete Experiences at Historically Black Colleges and Universities”) provides an explanation for why a chapter on female athlete is necessary: “therefore, it is necessary to explicate the need for this chapter and continual efforts to illuminate the life experiences of black women in the sporting contexts” (p. 63). Perhaps, as a feminist, I saw the “need” for this explanation as all too obvious. However, the ensuing three succinct paragraphs provide an excellent overview interlocking oppressions and the silencing of black female athletes—without diverting too much time and energy away from their experiences, which remained the bulk of the chapter.

While it was heartening to find two (two!) chapters on female athletes in a book such as this, I wish more had been done in chapter 6 (“Legal Issues and Black Female Athlete’s Collegiate Experiences at HBCUs”) to address the legal concerns of black female athletes. This chapter began with a succinct, but thorough overview of intersectionality and gender essentialism that is necessary when discussing women’s athletics. The chapter even ties these into legal concepts, using the legal analogy of “double jeopardy” to demonstrate how black women are “othered” not once, but twice, due to their gender and their race. However, the adage “less is more” may have been taken to heart in this chapter. The conclusion of the chapter mostly left me feeling like I wanted more—more information on racial clustering, more on how Title IX has been used by black women (or more on why it is not a good tool and is not used often?). This is a complex and compelling chapter on a topic not often found in the literature and I would have enjoyed reading more about the legal issues surrounding black female athletes, especially in the context of HBCUs.

Chapter 7 (“‘It’s HBCU Classic Time!’: Origins and the Perseverance of Historically Black College and University Football Classic Games”) may have been my least favorite chapter, outlining HBCU football classic games. Though this chapter was in section III, with a focus on financial issues, this seemed to be a more historical lens used in describing the passion for these games and the rationale for their existence. Chapter 2 covered classic games quite thoroughly, so as a stand-alone chapter, perhaps as an additional reading for a sport history course, this is thorough and useful. But it did begin to seem unnecessary, which leads to another area of improvement for this book: repetition. The text begins strongly with providing a lot of information, particularly to the unknowledgeable reader, about HBCUs and athletics. However, partway through the book, beginning in chapter 7, some topics become repetitious. Read individually, each chapter seems thorough and capable; but when taken together as a larger compilation, some of the background and history seems to repeat itself, literally, through the same arguments and sets of facts.

However, despite the sheer amount of information that is packed into less than 300 pages, I would take thorough over lacking anytime. And even when similar background information is presented, it may be framed differently. Take for example, the concept of “othermothering”, which is presented in two different chapters in slightly different ways. Chapter 3 provides an excellent introduction to the concept of “othermothering” through coaches and other mentors, such as teammates. I was struck by the argument that coaches of the 1940s through 1970s needed to provide leadership and guidance on race relations and “how to deal with the discriminatory realities” of the real world, the one outside HBCU walls (p. 67). Coaching pedagogy did not just include the Xs and Os, game strategy, and play calling, but also meant coaches must understand “the nuances of racism and discrimination and [foster] their athletes’ development and understanding of the latter” (p. 67). In a culture where #blacklives[still]matter, I cannot help but think that the HBCU coaches of the twentieth century may share more in common than they would have hoped necessary with the coaches of 2016. The Athletic Experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Past, Present, and Persistence is wonderfully edited to illuminate the historical and contemporary experiences of HBCU athletes.

Kristy McCray is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Otterbein University in Westerville, OH. She can be reached or you can follow her sporadic Twitter usage: @KristyMcCray

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