Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Slogging Into The 21st Century

The Earth shifted this week on South College Avenue, and it now looks like there will be a football game between the University of Delaware and Delaware State University sometime before the Sun begins to die in the next five billion years. The shift was felt on Monday afternoon when Delaware head coach KC Keeler told me and others that he thought the game would happen "sooner rather than later," but more importantly that he was taking a more active role "philosophically" in Delaware's football schedule design.

When he was hired after the 2001 season, Keeler was told two things by his new employers: Don't try to change the helmets, and leave the scheduling to us. But after looking at his team's tentative schedule for the 2008 season and seeing games at Maryland, at Furman, at James Madison, at Hofstra, at Richmond, and knowing earlier this year Delaware had scheduled a series of three games starting in 2010 with South Dakota State including one on the road, Keeler felt like it was time to get more involved. On Monday Keeler said that he would like to continue to see Delaware play a Division II school every year. (If you listen closely you may be able to hear the sounds of champagne corks popping through out the borough of West Chester, Pennsylvania.)

Keeler also said that he would like to have a Division I-A game like Navy, Army, Maryland, or Temple on the schedule every other year, and for the rest of the non-conference games he would like to see them against other I-AA opponents who would be willing to play exclusively at Delaware Stadium without any reciprocation. He then said (prepare for shift) that if Delaware State falls into that last category than so be it, "it would be good for the state".

The long debated controversy over why Delaware and Delaware State have yet to meet in football bubbled up again this week for several reasons.

First, it is always a topic when Delaware plays a game against any non-conference opponent that isn't Delaware State. On Saturday Delaware hosts Monmouth a I-AA school that would probably be in Division II or III except for the fact that they want their basketball program to be able to compete in Division I.

Delaware Athletic Director Edgar Johnson has maintained over the years that Delaware was not opposed to playing Delaware State they could just never find room on the schedule for the game. Proponents of the game scoffed that if Delaware could find room for the likes of Monmouth this year, Holy Cross and Albany the last two years, West Chester every year, and South Dakota State starting in 2010 then why not Delaware State?

Earlier this week the debate reached the national stage when Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated reporter and a University of Delaware alum, penned a piece for ESPN's website citing racism as the reason for Delaware avoiding the game.

This is not the first time that race has been mentioned in this context. While no proof exists to validate this view, the history of Delaware (the State and the University) shows a poor track record in the area. For example:
  • In 1861 despite rejecting an offer to join the Confederacy, Delaware remained a slave holding state.
  • In 1862 the Delaware legislature rejected an offer from President Lincoln to buy all of its slaves in order to set them free.
  • In 1865 the Delaware legislature voted against the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery.
  • In 1868 the Delaware legislature voted against the fourteenth amendment which guaranteed equal protection for all races.
  • In 1891 in response to the Morrill Act of 1890 which required that states either open their land-grant colleges to all races or create a separate land-grant specifically for blacks, the Delaware General Assembly rather than allow blacks to attend the University of Delaware chose the latter and as a result The State College for Colored Students was established eventually changing its name to Delaware State College in 1947 and then Delaware State University in 1993.
  • In 1950 the University of Delaware changes policy and admits its first African-American students.
  • In 1968 in the wake of riots in Wilmington the National Guard begins a ten month occupation of the State's largest city. The longest occupation in the country.
  • In 1990 after a series of racial incidents, the University must strengthen its policies regarding racial harassment.
Back in 1957, a full decade after Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Philadelphia Phillies finally signed their first black ballplayer. They were the last National League team to so. Later in life Robinson recalled that he used to receive death threats wherever he played, but Philadelphia was the only place he was ever actually scared that something bad might happen. In fact after a game with the Phillies in 1947 in which the hate and venom that spewed from the Phillies dugout from their manager Ben Chapman and some of the players was so strong that Robinson actually considered quitting. "To hell with Mr. Rickey's noble experiment," Robinson wrote of the encounter in his autobiography in 1972.

At the time, the Phillies were owned by the late Bob Carpenter a member of the Board of Trustees and long time benefactor and supporter of the University of Delaware.

Do any of these things have anything to do with the reason why Delaware has refused to play Delaware State in football? I don't know. But I think that it provides a context as to why people might think that race is the underlying reason why the University has evaded the game for so long. The University has never publicly stated its reasons for not playing the game. When pressed for an answer over the years, Athletic Director Edgar Johnson has never expanded on his standard response of "it will happen".

I do not think that the University is racist today although I do think it can be stubborn and slow to react. It seems like the harder people have pushed for the game over the last ten years, the harder the University has resisted. I just don't think they like being told what to do. I also wonder if, in some strange way, by agreeing to play the game now it would look like an admission of guilt for not playing it sooner.

In the past I have never been a huge advocate of playing the game, but I think the time has come. The University needs to bite the bullet, take its lumps, and just schedule the game.

And if the earth can shift at the mere mention of being philosophically agreeable to it, imagine how much the earth will move when ball is actually kicked off for the first time.

Bill Komissaroff

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