It is time to declare a civil rights movement in college football.
We need a new game plan. We need a new arsenal of weapons that will change the hiring practices for head football coaches. What we have now is a failure.
We also need to revitalize the system of public education that produces our college student-athletes.
You don't really need a study to conclude that four African-American head coaches out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision schools -- in a sport in which 46 percent of the players are African-American -- verges on scandalous. That's the smallest number in 15 years.
Members of the Black Coaches & Administrators are beside themselves. That includes Floyd Keith, the organization's executive director, who tells me that everything the BCA has tried hasn't worked.
"I was sure the Football Coaches Hiring Report Card would help move the issue and create more opportunities for coaches," he says. "While it has helped get more interviews for black coaches and more diverse search committees, we have gone backward instead of forward."
I was more than fortunate to be able to become friends with Grambling's legendary coach, the late Eddie Robinson, after being asked to co-author his autobiography with him. We first met in April 1997, when things were looking slightly better for African-American head coaches. At the time, there were eight, an all-time high.
Robinson coached for 56 years -- all at Grambling! When he retired, he had more wins than any other coach, had sent more than 200 players to NFL camps and had graduated 80 percent of his players, back when football graduation rates across the country were around 50 percent. In spite of all that, Robinson not only was never offered a Division I-A job, but was never even offered an interview for a Division I-A university head coaching job.
When he passed in April 2007, I was honored to be asked to deliver a eulogy. I told the 9,000 people assembled that Coach had hoped for so much more progress, but that there were fewer African-American head coaches that April day (there were six then) than there had been 10 years earlier when we met.
Eighteen months later, even that number has been cut down. I told the audience that we need a rule in college sports similar to the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires people of color to be included in the interviewing process for head-coaching positions. I said we should call it the Eddie Robinson Rule.
We need it now more than ever.
Robinson also emphasized educating his student-athletes. He literally would walk through the dorms with a cowbell before dawn to get his players up and out to class. That 80 percent grad rate is a testament to his methods. He believed that historically black colleges and universities such as Grambling provide a special opportunity for students to succeed.
Coach would not be happy with the report released Monday by The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. It shows that the gap between the graduation success rates for white and African-American football student-athletes has increased from 14 percent in the 2007 report to 17 percent in the new study, although the grad rates for African-American football student-athletes has increased. While the 2008 numbers show that 76 percent of white football student-athletes graduated, only 59 percent of African-American football student-athletes graduated. The Institute arrived at its findings by reviewing data collected by the NCAA from member schools over a six-year period, using the freshman classes that entered college from 1998 through 2001.
There is some good news: This year's study shows a nine percent improvement for African-Americans over last year. But we cannot overlook the fact that 19 of the 68 teams bound for bowls over the next month graduated fewer than half of their African-American football student-athletes, while only one school graduated fewer than half of its white football student-athletes.
Dr. Fitz Hill, now president of Arkansas Baptist College, is one of the 23 African-Americans to ever be a head coach in the history of Division I-A football. Since he saw some illiteracy among recruits as an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas in the 1990s, he has focused much of his career on creating programs to reduce and ultimately eliminate it. Hill says illiteracy is the No. 1 reason teenagers drop out of high school, and many of them wind up in jail.
Some illiterate teenagers get football scholarships.
Hill says, "While I was the head coach in San Jose State, I was recruiting a student-athlete in the Bay area. After watching film of this young man, I told the high school coach that I was going to recruit his player and offer him an athletic scholarship. The coach told me that I couldn't or shouldn't recruit this prospect. I asked why. Had he orally committed to USC, Cal or Stanford? He told me no and dropped his head. The coach hesitantly replied, 'The young man can't read.' Stunned, I said, 'You gotta be kidding.' Then I asked if this young man would be attending a tutoring session or a practice session when school was out. The coach said he would be going to practice.
"I thought, 'How sad,' and wondered how was this happening in 2002. Who would exploit a young man like this? How frequently does this happen? I would soon discover [it happens] more often than I realized. I then thought back to a situation where I was recruiting a student-athlete while working as an assistant coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks. We were having breakfast on his official visit and I told him to order anything on the menu that he wanted. He refused and told me to order for him. I finally understood that he couldn't read and was trying to hide it. This young man signed a football scholarship to play in the Southeastern Conference.
"But there are some questions that need to be answered. Who would pass these young men through grade school while not being able to read? What teachers and principals would do such a thing? Illiteracy is a form of mental incarceration which has greatly contributed to the quadrupling prison population over the last twenty years."
Hill, of course, is so right. Part of the problem of poor academic performance in college comes from poor preparation in elementary, middle and high schools in too many parts of this nation. I believe President-elect Obama will be proactive in getting more resources to these schools as early in his administration as possible. But no president will be able to bring about the wholesale change we really need.
So what do I mean by a civil rights movement in college football?
I mean we need more than just another African-American coach or two. We need organizations like the BCA, as well as traditional civil rights organizations, to organize at the grassroots level so that student-athletes and parents can let athletics departments -- and their elected officials -- know that they care about what is going on at our colleges and universities.
I know this is a different era, so we cannot expect civil disobedience and marches to move college football the way they spurred the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But we do need sustained, clear and loud voices to stand up for this brand of justice in sport.
On the level of hiring practices, an Eddie Robinson Rule is imperative. Just as schools can lose scholarships under NCAA president Myles Brand's academic-reform package, a system should be set up that would cost a school scholarships if it fails to interview a candidate of color when it has a coaching opening. There must be sanctions. Bud Selig has mandated that candidates of color must be interviewed for openings for Major League Baseball managers, and it worked. The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule two years later, and it worked.
But the current process in college football is a failure. We need more firepower.
The NCAA says its membership will not agree to the Eddie Robinson Rule. But there is precedent for change in the face of the NCAA's stance.
Back in the 1980s, the NCAA said it could not publish graduation rates because members would not agree to make that information public. But Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Ed Towns fashioned legislation requiring the publication of graduation rates that were race- and sport-specific; suddenly, the NCAA was able to do it. The embarrassment of the record under public scrutiny led to Brand's academic reform package, which is a cornerstone of his tenure at the NCAA.
I worked with Bradley and Towns on the earlier legislation. Ironically, Brand, Keith, Hill and I testified about hiring practices in front of a congressional committee this spring. I talked about the Robinson Rule, and Brand testified that his membership would not support it. Towns was on this committee, and he nodded in recollection of that other time when the NCAA said it could not do something.
If need be, part of this civil rights movement might involve going back to the Congress after the Obama administration is in place. No sports organization, college or pro, wants the federal government involved. Just the threat of such an action might be sufficient to get something done.
Prospective students-athletes need a transparent view of the colleges they are considering. The NCAA should find a way to get every student-athlete an annually produced report on each college's graduation rates, broken down by race and sport, along with a breakdown by race of each team's coaching staff. Prospects should know more about where they are going.
Finally, lawsuits are a key. After years of procrastination, Title IX lawsuits changed everything about the funding for women's sports. Since the BCA convention in 1996, I have been urging the organization to take legal action against schools that don't give a fair chance to black coaching candidates. Now, under Keith, it is seriously looking at initiating Title VII civil rights lawsuits in those cases.
For that to happen, we will need a courageous coach willing to take a huge risk that he might never be hired anywhere. The reality, however, is that such a coach's chances to be hired right now are minimal anyway, as 2008 draws to a close.
Brand is a crusader for racial equality. He was as a university president at Indiana and may even be more so as NCAA president. And many athletics directors would consider hiring an African-American head football coach, if they could make the decision on their own. But the administrators in college sports need some new tools to convince boards of trustees and boosters who might resist. We need a new arsenal to blow open the doors of opportunity.
The Eddie Robinson Rule, congressional action and Title VII lawsuits would be a start toward making college football coaches look more like their own players, and more like America.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at UCF, is the author of 13 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.