HBCU Athletics Demonstrate Black Excellence


Louis Bolling

As a former Morgan State University student-athlete, I understand the power and relevance of athletic programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As a journalist with the nation’s oldest African-American newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune, I understand and respect the power of media’s ability to tell stories to the masses.

Collegiate athletic programs are a vital component of the higher education system and college experience for a variety of reasons. However, the rich history, traditions, and achievements of people of color in HBCU athletics—their successes and historical relevance—often go untold.

Forty-five years ago, Howard University’s Men’s Soccer program made history while embodying all of the positive characteristics of collegiate athletics, even espousing the spirit of Olympism: blending sport with education and culture.

In 1971, led by Head Coach Lincoln ‘Tiger’ Phillips, Howard’s Men’s Soccer team won the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Championship. The team was stripped of the title only to win it three years later in 1974. ESPN’s new platform, The Undefeated, recently captured the story through a short film, Redemption Song.

“The premiere [of Redemption Song] reawakened emotions that had been buried for decades,” said the film’s producer, Mark W. Wright. “But while it’s great to get this story out to the world, what comes from it is what matters. Awareness is good, but awareness fades. We want to learn lessons. We want to right wrongs. We want to know our history to learn from it,” exclaimed Wright.

Formerly a Director of Content & Events for ESPN Events in Charlotte, a position he held for almost 10 years, Wright recently joined the staff of The Undefeated to develop content around HBCUs.

Redemption Song is as personal to me as any story I’ve ever worked on in my career. For starters, it’s about soccer—the game I grew up playing and loving in Jamaica. It’s about my alum mater, Howard University. And, it’s about my former soccer coach, Ian Bain, who is more than a coach but a mentor and father figure. Journalistically, Redemption Song stands on its own merits, having all of the elements that make for a good story.”

Phillips, Howard’s legendary men’s soccer coach, called his program’s trials “a setback” that were “a set up for a comeback.”

“Our team’s situation was taking place during the rise of black consciousness,” said Phillips, who also founded the Black Soccer Coaches Association.

Recently named a 2016 National Association of Black Journalists Pioneer Award recipient, Phillips stated “we wanted to be the best at a sport dominated by white people in this country. Our team was more than an athletic program; it became an extension of the civil rights movement in a way only sports can.”

Phillips’ teams consisted of American and international student-athletes from countries in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. This was a unique dynamic in itself, placing Howard at the forefront of recruiting international student-athletes, which is even more impressive when taking into account that the teams’ members maintained collective grade point averages over 3.0.

With plans to build original content and investigative journalism related to Spike Lee Lil’ Joints documentary shorts, Redemption Song presents a myriad of issues for The Undefeated to explore and for HBCU athletic supporters and preservationists to take action on.

Reinstating and conferring the 1971 Howard University Men’s Soccer team as NCAA Champions, inducting Coach Phillips into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame, and hiring more soccer coaches and athletic administrators of color at higher education institutions are a few of the topics that deserve further examination and advocacy.

Former Howard University student-athlete and renaissance man, Rock Newman, passionately stated “This wasn’t just about a soccer championship. This was about Black excellence.”

To watch Redemption Song, visit https://theundefeated.com/videos/redemption-song.

Louis Bolling serves the University of Pennsylvania community as an Interfaith Fellow to the Athletics & Recreation Community with the Office of the Chaplain. He holds a BS in Physical Education with a concentration in Sports Administration from Morgan State University. He is a freelance writer with The Philadelphia Tribune and Huffington Post. His interests include athletic administration at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, sport for development and peace, Olympism, university-assisted community schools and community-based sports issues. 

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