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Thursday, September 3, 2020

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In less than 24 hours, there will be live college football.

With all due respect to Central Arkansas and Austin Peay, who played in a "Week 0" matchup last weekend, the sport continues at the FBS level this week as the Sun Belt, American, and Conference USA begin play. Power 5 play begins a week later with the ACC and Big 12, and the SEC, content to let the other conferences serve as cannon fodder to any potential setbacks, resumes play in what most would call Week 4 on the last Saturday in September.

To be frank, I was doubtful we'd get to this point. Once the Big Ten and Pac 12 announced the postponement of their seasons, I thought the other Power 5 leagues would follow suit. Even once none of the remaining three made the immediate move, I thought for sure that UNC, NC State, and Notre Dame going to online only instruction temporarily or permanently might force the ACC's hand. But while there's still a week plus until the remaining P5 leagues kick off, it seems to be full speed ahead.

It's not the choice I would make if I were in a vacuum the likes of which no actual decision maker enjoys. I certainly would have erred on the conservative side and been alongside the Big Ten and Pac 12 in postponing the season. But now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, I'm rooting for a successful season, if for only one reason: It means that this season took place safely.

Above all else, I'm rooting for safety. I would far rather be "wrong" and have the season go off without a hitch, because "right" means that players got infected, got sick, or even died as we put college football's "student athletes" into harm's way to financially prop up athletic departments and universities. Wrong means that the plans, protocols, and safety measures are working. Wrong means a path forward for college football, certainly, but maybe for us all.

But selfishly, as a fan, wrong could mean one more thing. If the six conferences that play find a successful way forward, the Big Ten, Pac 12, MAC, and Mountain West, who have been using "postponed" language with regards to their fall season, and some seem to be mulling tentative plans at a season that starts at the very end of 2020 or early 2021. Consider this: The Rose Bowl is locked in as a College Football Playoff semifinal site for this season. If their traditional conferences, the Big Ten and Pac 12, play in the spring, could the Granddaddy of 'em All have its cake and eat it too with a spring Rose Bowl? It would certainly be the best possible end to an unorthodox, bifurcated season.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Black All Over

I've stuck pretty close to home since mid-March when coronavirus changed so much here in the US. It was a quest for beer that got me out.

To be fair, it was more than beer. Black Is Beautiful is a nationwide collaboration spearheaded by Weathered Souls, a Black-owned brewery in San Antonio, TX. On the heels of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings, Weathered Souls started a collaboration and a conversation, with beer as the vehicle. The collaboration was Black is Beautiful, an open source beer recipe made available to any brewery or home brewer who wanted to try their hand at it. Participating breweries were asked to donate their proceeds to "local foundations that support police brutality reform and legal defenses for those who have been wronged" or  "local organizations that support equality and inclusion"  While also committing to "the long term work of equality." Breweries from all 50 states, several countries, and home brewers signed on to the project, which meant any enterprising beerhead could stake out on a mission. I was such a beerhead.

I identified five breweries within an hourish drive of me who were brewing their own takes on Black is Beautiful, and inadvertently ended up with a sixth before I was done. While none of the eight breweries here in Greensboro participated, there were a few options in the Triad and just beyond.

My first trip was out to Wise Man, who did a version with chocolate and raspberries. Next released was across state lines - my first such trip since before March - to Ballad Brewing up in Danville. As far as I can tell, they went with the base recipe, but did a great job with it.

The other four came in the same weekend, as July gave way to August. I headed out on Friday to Kernersville Brewing, where they had their version on draft, and came home with a crowler. A trip down to Ikea in Charlotte also led to a stop by NoDa (and Divine Barrel, but they were unexpectedly closed) - while I wasn't heading down to all of Charlotte's myriad options, those in north Charlotte were accessible enough. NoDa altered the normal stout recipe into a dark pilsner. Sunday was for points east; Forgotten Road Ales in Graham, and Durty Bull in Durham. Forgotten Road offered the most options: A mixed four pack with their base recipe and coconut, chocolate hazelnut, and cinnamon vanilla varieties, while Durty Bull partnered with fellow Durhamites Jeddah's Tea for a chai version.

And while that ended my personal quest, I saved some for trade - both with a specific friend and potentially for future use - and I might mess around and do a vertical of what I've got at some point. And while I appreciate the project as a beer fan, I'm hoping it did what is set out to: Start the conversation.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Empty Promises

As the world continues to reel from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, sports in general and college football specifically are trying to figure out their path to return.

I'm just going to have to make my peace with the fact that this will be outdated nearly as soon as it posts, as the landscape of college sports, specifically college football's 2020 season, evolves rapidly.
To timestamp this: I write in the waning hour of July 9; it will likely post just beyond the midnight threshold. I'm reasonably certain the news cycle has wound down for the day. From there, I've probably got at least eight hours - likely 12, because announcements often come around mid-day, after morning meetings - before the landscape changes once more.

In the past 48 hours alone, we've learned that the Ivy League became the first Division I conference to decide not to compete this fall; Division II's SIAC and CIAA have stated the same, functionally ending all HBCU competition at the D-II level. The Big Ten will play only conference games; the ACC is reportedly considering the same, having already delayed the start of competition for its Olympic sports until at least September 1. Bands in the Big 12 will not travel to road games. Before this, we already learned about the cancellation of several neutral site games, including the Southern Heritage Classic and Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic; the NAIA not starting competition until at least September 12, and the American Athletic Conference not allowing bands on the field at all.

All of these steps are being taken to preserve some semblance of a season as we know it, but are we moving towards a safer product that can resume in the fall, or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

College football sits amid a quagmire of sports, culture, education, politics, and the almighty dollar that make a decision to cancel or not particularly complicated. The major professional leagues are all making their plans for a return: NASCAR's back already, racing to empty speedways; MLB will return at the end of the month with a shortened season and regionalized action; MLS has returned to a World Cup style tournament in a quasi-Olympic village in Orlando; the NBA is doing similar when their season returns in three weeks. And save for a remote draft, the NFL, whose start date laid the latest from the initial COVID-19 interruptions has soldiered on towards its September start as though there is no pandemic.

College football is different. The sport has no central leadership structure; even the NCAA barely holds sway at the sports highest level, where the championship is decided by a proprietary invitational playoff. Teams in the FBS play in 41 states, 10 conferences, myriad state university systems, and municipalities ranging from college towns to major metropolitan areas, each of which make decisions that affect the sport, and each of which is making their own decisions for their constituencies about what is in their best interest during this pandemic.

One of the first hurdles: Are students even returning to campus for an in-person fall semester? Most are, in many cases with some modifications including hybrid or online courses and campus social distancing, face covering, and testing or self monitoring protocols. Still, social distancing efforts are for naught with up to 400 in a band room playing wind instruments, or gathered in a locker room before taking the field to engage in a collision sport. There have already been spikes in positive tests among players at both of this past year's championship contenders, LSU and Clemson. 

Social distancing also becomes tricky when it comes to the 100,000+ seat cathedrals at which we worship college football each fall Saturday. There has been talk of diminishing capacity in such a way that allows attendees to social distance, but I think that's the most you can do to limit it. Unlike the professional leagues, where athletes earning into the millions are competing, it takes quite the ethical limbo to tell the student-athletes - a term we love to sling when it's convenient - that they can risk their health without compensation when it's deemed unsafe for their classmates to watch from the stands.

The athletes, meanwhile, are competing in an ecosystem that contains 130 teams at the sports highest level alone. Even if each conference restricts simply to league play, as the Big Ten has, playing puts each player into direct or indirect contact with over 1,000 players per conference, to say nothing of coaches, support staff, and others on campus with whom each of them are in contact. 

The sport is predicated on travel, for both the teams and the fans. The season brings travel into communities like Starkville and State College, Columbia and Corvallis. One of the early illustrations on the virus' spread in the US tracked those who spent Spring Break in Florida and returned to their hometowns afterwards. Consider that same model playing out over a 12 game season from hundreds of campus sites. And limiting or even eliminating in stadium crowds may do little to limit that. Outside of perhaps the NFL and NASCAR - and for the latter of these, much of it occurs within gates that the league controls - college football's tailgate culture is such that even if fans can't get in the stadium, it may take a small army to keep them from showing up for their Saturday parking lot ritual and watching the game from their rig.

But the show must go on - or at least, it will try its damndest. To lose the season would cause grievous, if not catastrophic, financial damage to many institutions' athletic departments. In many cases, college football revenue keeps the lights on for the rest of the athletic department, and in the top programs, much of the university as well, be it through directly generated ticket and TV revenue or the rest of the industrial complex that commands alumni and donor giving, merchandise sales, parking, concessions, and even a sizable boost to the local economy as campuses become one of the largest cities in their respective states for a Saturday afternoon a half dozen or so times a year. College football is also a key driver in the spirit of their community and the psychological sense of belonging. A pandemic rages on, and the return of football would allow to believe in whatever normal is.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Let's Go, Wildcats

Image from swac.org
The SWAC train hadn't finished boarding before departing Florida.

Three weeks ago, the FAMU Rattlers announced that this coming year in the MEAC will be their last, and now their rival and statemate Bethune Cookman will be following in their footsteps. BCU and FAMU will be joined in departure by North Carolina A&T, who will head to the Big South for the 2021-22 academic year. While many factors likely led to Bethune's decision, the writing on the wall for the MEAC had to be among them.

BCU is an interesting geographic outlier. When you remove nearby FAMU, The Wildcats' trip to their next four closest Division I HBCUs is longer than anyone else's. The move to the SWAC makes their longest stretch a bit longer - 1,000 miles to Prairie View vs. just under 900 to Delaware State - but there's something to be said for knowing your conference will be there tomorrow, which was on increasingly shaky ground in the MEAC. Divisional play will also minimize some of the longest trips.

BCU also likely considered a shared fate with FAMU, with whom they've been conferencemates in the SIAC and MEAC since 1950, save for a couple of brief departures for FAMU. The dual move will keep the Florida Classic a conference game, and it will join an already rich slate of intraconference SWAC classics. The addition of BCU and FAMU in the east will certainly also necessitate the shifting of divisions. The new balance would send one of the Mississippi schools to the west; geography would dictate it be Alcorn, though a Jackson State move would keep the BoomBox classic divisional.

Down to six football playing members after the moves, the MEAC is feeling mighty Big Eastish. The remaining schools have to be looking for the exits; it has already been a reported conversation among Delaware State's Board of Trustees, and any other school would be shortsighted not to be having the same conversations. For schools wishing to remain Division I, the Big South, which will already be home to two HBCUs may be the best fit for many as nearly all of the remaining conference falls within or only slightly extends the Big South's footprint. All or parts of the league also share geographical ties with the Southern Conference, Patriot League, Colonial Athletic Association, and Northeast Conference. If schools see fit to end their run at the Division I level, most of the conference is former members of the Divisions II CIAA. The folks at HBCU Gameday also floated the emergence of a new conference.

A loss of the MEAC would also mean the end of the Celebration Bowl, unless they re-evaluated selection. Currently, the game pits the champions of the MEAC and SWAC against one another to determine Black college football's champion. If the MEAC were to continue, four time champion North Carolina A&T would no longer be in the running. The bowl could continue as a SWAC vs. Everybody competition - a move that puts Tennessee State, previously the only Division I HBCU not in an all HBCU conference, in the running for the first time - or take the overall best two records, which could result in either a SWAC rematch or the conference's exclusion. To lose the bowl altogether would destage a major HBCU presence during college football's postseason. But I would imagine there's no determination to be made there until all of the realignment dust settles.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Realignment (And it Feels So Good?)

Since news of FAMU's move to the SWAC, the realignment train has kept rolling right on down the track. First, the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) announced a move to America East in 2020. The Highlanders are currently affiliated with the Atlantic Sun Conference. NJIT's move bridges, albeit minorly, the large gap between UMBC and its closest league opponents being over 250 miles away in the Northeast. NJIT also finds a much better fit for itself; all of its A-Sun conferencemates were at minimum three states away, with half of the rest of the league being down in Florida. 

A state away, the Robert Morris Colonials had an announcement of their own - a move to the Horizon league. Robert Morris has been in the Northeast Conference since the leagues 1981 inception. In the Horizon, they find a geographical fit with fellow Ohio Valley and Great Lakes Region schools. The Colonials' football program will join the Big South, which grows to nine football members after its recent additions.

The Big South could make things interesting. The impending departure of A&T and FAMU has already placed the MEAC on shakier ground, and word on the street is that Bethune-Cookman has a wandering eye as well. HBCU Gameday has examined a number of realignment scenarios involving the current MEAC programs, and the Big South could be a landing place for some programs should the MEAC falter. After the realignment that we already know about, the Big South will have 12 members in most sports and nine in football, and could be a landing place for schools in the middle of the MEAC's geography that wish to remain DI. BCU could also fill the hole that NJIT leaves in the A-Sun for most sports, while becoming a football only member of the Big South, which already reaches beyond its Carolinas/Virginia footprint to include Kennesaw State and North Alabama in its football league. For now, we'll just have to wait and see where this carousel ends.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Southern Cuisine

@DukesMayoBowl's Twitter avi.
 The bowl most recently known as the Belk Bowl has a new identity. Belk announced in late 2019 that the game played that year in Charlotte would be the last to bear its name and corporate sponsorship. Southern Staple Duke's Mayonnaise has since taken up the mantle, and it was announced as the Duke's Mayo Bowl earlier this week. The game pits an ACC team against a team from either the SEC or Big Ten. The early season neutral site game in Charlotte will also bear the Duke's name.

Like Belk, Duke's is a brand born in the Carolinas (Greenville, SC to Belk's Monroe, NC) and inextricably linked to the South. Among the cultural divides between north and south is that of Hellman's vs. Duke's, which makes it a good fit for a both headquartered in Charlotte. Since the bowl began its contract pitting the ACC vs. the SEC in 2014, the matchup has always included a pair of southern schools; this will certainly change (College Park's regional ambiguity notwithstanding) when the SEC begins alternating with the Big Ten for their half of the bowl bid.

This is where my carpetbagger shows: I don't have a personal connection to Duke's. Still, I recognize its regional prominence, and think it makes a strong fit for the Charlotte bowl game.

Punctuation Marks

As the nation is in the punctuation phase of punctuated equilibrium, it was never reasonable to assume that the sports and marching worlds would remain immune. We've already seen the removal of the confederate battle flag from NASCAR, and now change is making its way to college sports.

The University of Florida has announced the end of its "Gator Bait" cheer, a fanfare played by the marching band followed by the eponymous words from the fans. While the cheer refers to Florida's Gator mascot, the phrase has a far darker origin, reaching back to a time when alligator hunters would use Black babies - typicallly enslaved children - at bait. The University of Florida is taking a top-to-bottom look at their traditions and practices through a lens of equity, and in doing so, decided that Gator Bait had to go.

Across the state line, the Gators' rival University of Georgia is removing Tara's Theme from the Redcoat Band's postgame. The piece is form the soundtrack of Gone with the Wind, a film that's depiction of antebellum and Civil War era plantation life has it under renewed scrutiny, The film has been temporarily pulled from streaming services to be returned with additional context. The Redcoat Band will replace Tara's Theme with Georgia on my Mind.

The recent moves by Florida and Georgia are reminiscent of Ole Miss' Pride of the South removing From Dixie With Love from their repertoire. In that instance, the piece had become the tableau for unwanted tradition.

Speaking of Mississippi, their state flag - the only flag in the country that still incorporates a portion of the confederate battle flag - has come under renewed scrutiny. First the SEC made a statement that it was time for a change to the state flag, and said it would consider withholding championship games from the state if the current flag continued to fly. Mississippi State hosted the softball championships in 2018, and the men's and women's tennis championships currently rotate to all schools. Shortly after the SEC's statement, the NCAA said it would no longer host postseason events in Mississippi due to the presence of the flag. This move is a re-interpretation of a ban that took place in 2001, and for a long time kept postseason play out of the state of South Carolina due to the battle flag's presence on the state house grounds. South Carolina has hosted postseason events since the flag was removed in 2015. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State hosted baseball regionals last year. The South Carolina legislature did not make any changes based strictly on NCAA pressure; we'll see how loud the clangs get in Mississippi.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Checkered Flag

Every so often, America gets a glimpse in the mirror and decides, however superficially or temporarily, that it's time to take a look at its own racism.

The most recent reckoning has come following the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, and the subsequent uprisings throughout the nation and world. Floyd's death occurred in the most recent context of Breonna Taylor's killing by Louisville Metro Police; the nation learning of Ahmaud Arbery's February murder by racist vigilantes, one of whom was a former police officer and former investigator for the DA's office; and Tony McDade, who was killed by police in Tallahassee days after Floyd.

As many in the sports world addressed the killing of George Floyd specifically and the fact that Black Lives Matter and systemic racism more generally, NASCAR took action in a different way: By banning the confederate battle flag from its events.

The move from NASCAR comes amid the US Navy and Marines banning the flag's presence, and a short-lived conversation on the renaming of military bases named after confederate figures. The change in NASCAR was brought to the forefront by Bubba Wallace, the sport's sole Black driver at its highest level, who also ran a Black Lives Matter car in the first race following the announcement at Martinsville.

The most recent awakening concerning the rebel flag came in 2015, shortly after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Following this massacre, South Carolina removed the battle flag from their statehouse grounds, and at that point NASCAR condemned the flag's presence, though no steps were made to remove it. It is notable that in the case of Dylann Roof, he openly identified with and displayed the confederate battle flag, making a clear association between his attack and the flag's disavowal in 2015. In NASCAR's most recent move, the flag's removal was simply an acknowledgment of the flag's association with white supremacy and anti-Black sentiments, to say nothing of its inimical relationship with the United States itself.

The flag's association with NASCAR comes from stock car racing's origins in the South, born of a rebellious spirit in the form of moonshine running in the prohibition era. Some southern race fans have lamented the NASCAR's expansion beyond the South and the perceived de-emphasis of its base, and see the movement away from the flag as further evidence of this trend. While reaction has been largely favorable from outside the sport's core, there have been mixed reactions from those within. Following the move, jobber Ray Ciccarellit, a driver with the NASCAR Truck Series, flounced following the announcement, stating that the current season would be his last.

Time will tell how the move plays out with fans present. Currently, NASCAR is racing to empty speedways amid the coronavirus pandemic. There's no telling if it will have an impact on attendance, if some fans will be defiant or choose to fly alternative confederate flags, or how they will go about enforcing it, but NASCAR taking this stand was major.

-Flag's most recent rockining came following Roof murders; removed from SC statehouse
-long flown in conjunction with NASCAR
-issued a statement condemning it five years ago
-recent action spearheaded by Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver at the sport's highest level
-Ray flounced
-Time will tell - no fans for the time being.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Fangs for the Memories

If I told you that the latest round of realignment left a conference's southern edge stretching from North Florida to East Texas, you might think it was a callback to Texas A&M's announcement to join the SEC.

This time it's the SWAC.

Florida A&M announced Thursday that they will head to the SWAC effective the 2021-22 academic year, making this coming school year their last in the MEAC. Their departure from the conference will coincide with that of North Carolina A&T, who will depart for the Big South.

FAMU's conference move is understandable, if not foreseeable, in the context of the round of realignment that led to Big East football's dissolution. Once Pitt and Syracuse announced their jump to the ACC, no one wanted to be the last team left standing when the music stopped, and everyone with a viable path began heading to the exits, including such strange bedfellows as West Virginia to the Big 12 and Rutgers to the Big Ten. At first glance, FAMU in the SWAC may seem one of those mismatches.

But historic fiefdoms aside, FAMU to the SWAC isn't as out of place as it seems. The Rattlers were one of the two southernmost schools in the MEAC, the most extensive conference east of the Rockies. While FAMU will be the only conference school in the eastern time zone, even their longest road trip - a 750 mile jaunt along I-10 to Prairie View A&M - is shorter than its current conference trips to the entire MEAC north:

FAMU's departure deals yet another blow to an already reeling MEAC, who will be down to just seven football members after losing FAMU and A&T. In both programs, it's not just that they've lost, but who they've lost: Two of the largest HBCUs in the nation, each school's name recognition, and in the case of FAMU, the only HBCU to win the I-AA (now FCS) national championship and a Sudler Trophy. And as in the case of the Big East, this level of instability could cause other programs to get antsy. While the SWAC isn't a good geographic fit for anyone else in the conference, and of the programs could consider relegating to Division II and joining the CIAA or SIAC, or joining a conference that's not primarily comprised of HBCUs. Howard, Norfolk State, NC Central, and SC State fit neatly into the Big South footprint, for instance, and the conference has already welcomed fellow HBCUs Hampton and A&T into the fold.

It's also worth wondering what the SWAC';s end game will be. The addition of FAMU gives them 11 members and unbalanced divisions. While they've already received the NCAA exemption to hold a conference championship game with fewer than 12 members, further expansion would bring balance. A logical target would be Tennessee State, the OG of Division I HBCUs outside of the MEAC and SWAC, which currently resides in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Tigers already enjoy rivalries with SWAC schools, and as a member of the SWAC would have access to the Celebration Bowel and a Black College Football National Championship - provided the MEAC endures and the game continues. Adding Tennessee State might also cause a divisional realignment; ssuming the SWAC didn't intend to go the Mizzou-in-the-SEC-East route, either Alcorn or Jackson State would head west.

And, of course, the move to the new neighborhood means new conference matchups fir the Marching 100. Last season's tilt with Southern's Human Jukebox was highly anticipated, and as a conference showdown, these two programs can rekindle both familiarity and contempt. Their presumed division along will bring trips to and visits from the likes of the Sonic Boom of the South and Marching Maroon and White each year, while in the crossover loom the Ocean of Soul and the World Famed Tiger Marching Band in addition to the Human Jukebox. FAMU's football prowess may even land the 100 a visitor in Tallahassee for the SWAC championship game, or a trip to Atlanta for the Celebration Bowl. FAMU - both the team and the band - get access to fertile recruiting in Louisiana and Texas, in addition to that which they already enjoy in Florida and nearby Georgia and Alabama. The MEAC/SWAC smack talk lines are no longer strictly regional, the Florida Classic is now an intersectional matchup, and the HBCU sports landscape changes once more.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

One Shining Moment



It never came to pass, but for one shining moment, we knew that pep bands were essential personnel.

News of the college hoops world's reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic changed very quickly. Mid day this past Wednesday, I expected to spend Thursday night in the Greensboro Coliseum for the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. By that evening we would learn that no fans would be in attendance, before the tournament was cancelled completely about a half hour before the tip of the first quarterfinal game.

But an awesome thing happened: As those who were allowed to attend filed into the Coliseum for the first quarterfinal matchup, among them were FSU and Clemson's pep bands. It's what I believe should have happened - social distancing is important, of course, but the pep bands occupy a part of the arena distinct from those occupied by the team or the media who we knew would be present. Keeping the pep bands allows for a modicum of normalcy in absurd times, ensuring that both teams have some of their most fervent supporters and their soundtrack, present. It would seem that the Atlantic Coast Conference agreed, as both bands were to be among those in attendance before the tournament was abruptly curtailed. While the game was never played, it's great that if it had been, the bands would have been on hand.

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