While the recent strike by Grambling football players highlights the long history of separate and unequal funding for black colleges, the school’s financial woes also illuminates a history of financial racial discrimination by the NCAA that has hindered HBCUs ability to earn revenue. The roots of this problem start with the expansion of the NCAA as an economic cartel in the late 1940s and their power move to take over TV contracts.
With the development of television, colleges from across the country scrambled to sign TV contracts to take advantage of this new money making opportunity. However, arguing that too many TV contracts flooded the market, diminished advertising revenue, and crippled attendance, the NCAA took over TV contracts in 1951, effectively becoming a monopoly. Although black colleges were only affiliated members of the NCAA, this relationship with the cartel meant that the colleges lost the power to sign their own TV contracts. This uneven economic relationship came to the forefront in 1953 when a company wanted to telecast 10 CIAA games, but the NCAA denied them the opportunity. With TV ownership in America moving from 10% to 90% in the 1950s, and more students matriculating to colleges because of the GI Bill, playing on TV surely would have brought in necessary publicity to attract potential students, and create a revenue stream to help supplement their meager Jim Crow state funding, allowing black colleges to invest in their athletic facilities. This latter point would become especially important after integration when black colleges had to compete with the previously Jim Crowed institutions that had better facilities, especially bigger stadiums to generate revenue. In fact, the NCAA and their TV affiliates ABC and CBS did not telecast any black colleges until 1971, leaving great teams like Tennessee State, FAMU, and Grambling off of TV. Highlighting the ridiculousness of this situation was the reality that these teams had some of the best players in the country. For example, pro teams drafted 10 defenders from the 1966 Tennessee State squad, and the famed Grambling football team had produced 70 pro football players by 1969, and had 34 players in pro leagues that year.
Under the leadership of Eddie Robinson, Grambling was the biggest show in black college sports and the pride of black America. In 1969, the Tigers played to crowds of more than 60,000 in back-to-back weeks in Los Angeles and New York. Their ability to attract fans finally caught the NCAA’s attention and Grambling played in the first nationally televised game featuring black schools in 1971, netting the Tigers and their opponent Morgan State $200,000. The following year Fisk and Fort Valley State played in the first regionally televised game featuring black colleges. While Grambling continued to make money during the 1970s—in 1975 they cleared nearly $725,000 and had made a million dollars by the time Doug Williams was a senior in 1977—most black colleges struggled to survive, because the NCAA’s contract limited the amount of times a station had to telecast a small college. For example, a two year-contract with ABC in 1978-79 stipulated that the station only had to telecast 11 Division I-AA appearances. Each Division I-AA team they showed constituted one appearance. In 1978, ABC showed 5 games featuring I-AA teams, including Jackson State, Southern, and FAMU, which played 3 times netting the school roughly $333,000. But this meant that ABC only had to show 1 game the following year, and they filled that slot with Grambling and Alcorn. Meanwhile, ESPN only showed one black team, FAMU. Despite losing a lot of talent to the previously Jim Crowed schools, black colleges arguably had the best players. In 1980, Grambling, Jackson State, and Tennessee State each had 23 players in the NFL, more than any other school. Without TV appearances, however, black colleges increasingly lost the ability to invest in their facilities and continue to attract top talent and compete with the newly integrated Division I schools. Only Tennessee State made the leap to Division I trying to chase those TV dollars, but discrimination tripped them up. Despite going 9-1 in 1980, for example, no bowls selected the great team, prompting a number of black sportswriters to advocate a black boycott of bowl games. A year later, the combination of a bad economy, budget cuts, slagging attendance, and lack of TV revenue, the storied program was losing money and facing the reality of losing football.
The changing TV market during the 1980s kept hindering black college football. In 1981, under the College Football Association, 61 major schools bucked the NCAA and made their own contract with TV networks. The big schools left the NCAA, because they did not want to share their money with smaller colleges. This move, which was legalized in 1984, effectively shut out black schools from the potential $200,500 they would receive under the NCAA contract, because they were not part of the CFA and CFA schools were not going to play them. FAMU athletic director Roosevelt Wilson, noted “This CFA thing is strictly a big-boy-on-the-black proposition. What they are looking to do is tie up all the TV money and keep it away from the smaller schools.” Cut off from TV money, and rapidly losing their talent to the teams that played on TV, by 1985 black colleges were looking to drop to Division II so they would not have to offer has many scholarships, or drop football. The teams that survived did so with state funds, creative marketing, and signing TV contracts with smaller networks like BET.
Today, black colleges have finally found a way to make money on TV by playing top-notch Division I teams looking to fill their schedule with easy games. Of course, this means they have to sacrifice the health of their student athletes for a paycheck. The money represents a significant portion of their athletic budget, but does not allow the teams to invest in their facilities, which would help them attract more talent, or in Grambling’s case buy necessary equipment. The fact that these once great schools are now marketing themselves as easy games to PWIs (Predominately White Institutions,) in order to make money is a reflection of the damage of years of TV discrimination rooted in the old Jim Crow policies of the NCAA and TV networks.