Celebrate the Culture

For the past five seasons, the bowl schedule has included one departure from the Football Bowl Subdivision: From the FCS ranks, the MEAC and SWAC champions have met in the Celebration Bowl to determine the HBCU national champion. Since the bowl's inception, a chorus emerges from the woodwork each year to chide the MEAC and SWAC for not competing for the "real" championship by participating in the FCS playoffs. If I'm perfectly honest, I was among them, briefly, early on.  But the Celebration Bowl is in concert with college football's rich traditions in a way that we'd be worse off without.

For starters, let's not kid ourselves about the sanctity of the "real" championship. College football has been unable to agree on its champions since its inception. At the sport's highest level, it took until the 146th season to enter into something that can be reasonable called a playoff, and while it's more inclusive than its predecessor, the BCS, it is still not without its flaws. Throughout the overwhelming majority of the sport, the champions have been crowned by polls. The Black College Football national champion has been no different in this respect. There have been previous attempts to settle it on the field, but the Celebration Bowl represents the first time the MEAC and SWAC champions meet by contract, with the playoff being the primary obstacle in the past.

And yet, very little has changed with regards to HBCU participation in the FCS postseason. While opponents may wish to imagine a grand HBCU secession from the playoffs, the reality is far less complicated. The SWAC has always prized its own product over the playoffs, and with the Turkey Day Classic, Bayou Classic, and their own championship game to consider, they simply couldn't be bothered to participate in the playoffs. The MEAC no longer sends its champion to the playoffs, but the conference is still eligible for at-large bids, and has received one in the Celebration Bowl era, with North Carolina A&T representing the conference in 2016.

"But isn't the Celebration Bowl and the decision not to send its champion to the playoffs just an admission of HBCU inferiority?" the common refrain goes. Make no mistake - HBCUs are historically and systemically underresourced - by design.To pretend that any shortcomings in athletics aren't a symptom thereof is simply ignoring both historical fact and present reality. Yet still, HBCUs are competitive to exemplary in virtually every way, especially as it relates to educating black students, where their PWI peers at all levels often fall short. While it's not systemic in the same way, claiming HBCUs "can't compete" is the same half-truth as claiming that Group of Five teams "can't compete" while ignoring the imbalance with which they are operating. Ironically - and  by no means should this be the goal - the payouts and resources afforded by participation in the Celebration Bowl could be used to close the gap in a way that makes programs competitive with perennial playoffs powers.

But the Celebration Bowl's primary purpose isn't too different from that of other bowls: reward and exposure. The Celebration Bowl provides much more of this for its participants than they could ever hope for in the FCS playoffs. Its inclusion in ESPN's Bowl Mania alone is more coverage than the FCS Playoffs tend to get, despite the semifinals taking place on the same day. Because it's part of the overall bowl schedule, other media have to account for it as well, ensuring that they have to at least prepare a one liner about the likes of A&T or Alcorn State. The Celebration Bowl's media deal - a noon Saturday kick on ABC - is as good as the FCS Championship, with the added benefit of not competing for time and attention with the NFL Playoffs of the College Football Playoff championship. And a MEAC or SWAC champion playing the other is far more meaningful than a December matchup against a fellow FCS program. The last playoff game I attended was Delaware-DelState, a historic matchup between a pair of state schools held apart for the entirety of their existence by the same systemic exclusion that created HBCUs in the first place. A game of this import in the first round of the playoffs is the exception that proves the rule. Far more often, there’s little intrigue for the matchup beyond both teams wanting to survive and advance.

But above all else, the Celebration Bowl is for the culture. In much the same way the NCAA basketball Final Four becomes the epicenter of all things college hoops, including the coaches' convention, the Celebration Bowl becomes the center of HBCU activity for a weekend in Atlanta. ESPN's sports and culture arm, The Undefeated, gets to run point on much of the weekend's coverage. Divine Nine fraternities and sororities have a presence up to and including national leadership. The seating map for the game explicitly states where both bands will be seated - an important detail. Luster Products is a major sponsor. The NFL hosts its football career forum aimed towards HBCU students. And of course, the game ends properly with a 5th Quarter. Instead of tying themselves to a product that wasn't created with them in mind, the MEAC and SWAC went with a bowl tie-in that served them best, much as major conferences have been doing. And that is a cause for Celebration.