It has been nearly a full calendar year since the NBA announced it was suspending the 2019-20 season due to concerns over the growing coronavirus pandemic; a time when there were many unknowns about COVID-19, the trajectory that the pandemic would take and how much it would impact people’s lives.
A year later, we have come to grips with the stark disparities within every facet of American life revealed in the form of a virus. In food security, health outcomes, and education – just to name a few – every racial gap that exists has been deepened by COVID-19. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are a gleaming example of this fundamental truth. Generations and a global pandemic later, these historic disparities have been grossly exacerbated.
Inequality decades in the making cannot be undone overnight, but awareness and support around these issues can start to make a difference. In that spirit, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) have dedicated NBA All-Star 2021 to elevating Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and COVID-19 equity. More than $3 million in funds and resources have been committed toward helping students and institutions address the challenges of this past year head on and begin to curb these longstanding trends.
The statistics around these challenges are alarming:
- The CDC estimates that only 5.4% of those vaccinated are Black vs. 60.4% of those vaccinated are non-Hispanic white, according to ABC News
- More than 75% of students at HBCUs rely on Pell Grants and nearly 13% rely on PLUS Loans to meet their college expenses. HBCUs also have 1/8 of the average size of endowments than historically white colleges and universities, according to TMCF
And so are the real stories behind the stats:
“What happened in 2020, it put a spotlight on some of the inequities that exist more specifically within the African-American community,” said Dr. Harry L. Williams, President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. “And with the unfortunate incidents with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, this sparked the conscience of this country, it literally woke up and recognized that there are some discrepancies.
“With that spotlight, organizations like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, we’ve been in a position to address some of those concerns. Our partners have stepped up and said we want to help, we want to be part of the solution.”
Clay Armbrister, President of Johnson C. Smith University – an HBCU in Charlotte, NC – has seen the impact that the pandemic has had on many of his students firsthand. He knows the stories of students that simply don’t have the resources to virtual school, work from home, and taking care of family impacted by the pandemic.
“It’s been very challenging; many of our students come from lower economic status, they may not have the kind of resources that many other students have if they’re trying to learn from home,” said Armbrister. “They may not have a quiet room to go to where they can sit in for two and-a-half hours and take a class, or they may have younger siblings for whom they may have responsibilities.”
Other students have had trouble even affording the plane or bus ticket to return home once the semester abruptly ended. Many students returned home to limited internet access hindering their ability to adjust to full-time distance learning.
Dr. Mike Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College – an HBCU in Dallas, TX – echoed similar stories from his students as they have been off campus for the past year.
“Ninety percent of our students last semester were working 40 hours a week or more,” Sorrell said. “What you’re seeing is people who are living under incredible stress and dealing with the trauma of not just the pandemic, the pandemic married to poverty. You have to understand the increased burden that is accompanied by living a life where you cannot do simple things. And that’s what our students are struggling with.”
Sorrell equated the challenges that many of his students face to running full speed while being held by resistance bands, restricting their ability to accelerate and continue to make progress while others with greater resources are able to bypass them.
“When you combine the economic impact, the health impact and the psychological and social impact on our students, they’re getting hit from a lot of different directions,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, President and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. “We know that our students have had to work. We know that they’ve had to become breadwinners. We know that they’ve had to become caregivers. And all at the same time, they’re trying to remain students.
“That’s why we need more partners who will call attention to the challenges that Black college students face and the important work that we’re doing to help make sure that we have we don’t lose a generation of college graduates because these graduates will be the doctors of the next 20 years. They’ll be the front-line people that we rely on so much – the teachers and the lawyers, people who will be supporting the Black community in our nation.”
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund provides assistance for its member schools, which include the 47 publicly-supported HBCUs. The United Negro College Fund provides assistance for its 37 member schools, with a focus on private HBCUs. In light of the pandemic, both organizations launched emergency aid programs – the TMCF COVID-19 HBCU Emergency Fund and UNCF’s Emergency Student Aid program – to meet the needs of students like those at Paul Quinn College and JCSU in providing financial assistance for food and housing, technology needs, food insecurities, mental health services, degree completion to HBCU students.
Then there is the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), which is an advocacy association for all 101 HBCUs. Dr. Lezli Baskerville, the President of NAFEO, discussed the organization’s work to close the inequities between HBCUs and other institutions of higher education throughout the country.
“HBCUs are not only doing better than any grouping of American colleges at graduating African-ancestry persons and sending them into high needs areas like STEM, agricultural and medical professions. But they are also maintaining their costs. Today, as with most years, the cost of college is a huge challenge and a lot of the discussions at the policy tables in education and in other areas where people are trying to figure out how you close the education gap, the economic gap, the employment gap, the welfare, healthcare, sustainability and justice gap. Because HBCUs are uniquely situated to lead in those areas because their students are among the growing population of America.”
Two additional battles that have been exacerbated by the pandemic are food insecurity and the demands on community health organizations. Jasmine Crowe founded Goodr in 2016 when she was blown away by how much food goes to waste while there are simultaneously so many people that go hungry every day. She was inspired to make an impact – first by cooking and delivering meals to those in need, but then saw a bigger opportunity. “I’m going to create an app that when businesses have excess food, they can use our app and request pick up and we’ll pick it up and, and get it to people in need,” she said.
While that concept worked well during normal times, it shifted hard during the pandemic when offices were closed and major sporting and entertainment events were shut down, which were the primary providers of the excess food that Goodr was using to help those in need. Rather than be deterred, Crowe shifted her focus toward manufacturers and started working with farmers and the providers that supplied those big events with food in the first place.
“They had no one to sell it to, so Goodr started working with them, getting that food either donated or purchased at a better price and then getting it to people. So, our business has shifted more into the distribution model as opposed to the recovery model.”
In addition to Goodr, the NBA is also supporting Direct Relief and the Fund for Health Equity. Direct Relief is a humanitarian aid organization, active in all 50 states and more than 100 countries, with a mission to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies. The Fund for Health Equity will identify and provide financial support to communities in which deep-seated effects of historic racism and socioeconomic disparities remain and are being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a humanitarian health organization, we see there’s these chronic gaps that exist usually in poor areas, and when an emergency happens, the people who get most effected are the people who are most effected before. So, it makes tough situations, way tougher,” said Thomas Tighe, President and CEO of Direct Relief. “They don’t have the cushion. It’s harder to bounce back because it exacerbates the challenges that already existed.”
A key focus for Direct Relief is a network of 14,000 non-profit community health centers that they help support. Tighe notes that those health centers are the front door to the health care system for roughly 30 million people that don’t have other options.
“It’s the biggest health system in the United States – and no one knows about it. It’s hiding in plain sight,” Tighe said. The goal for Tighe and Direct Relief is to pump resources into these health centers in order to keep them running, keep their health workers safe and give them to tools they need to help as many people as they possible can.”
NBA All-Star 2021 will not only provide funds for these schools and organizations, it will help them gain more exposure to share their stories and reach a larger and more global audience then they could reach on their own.
“It’s a great way of recognizing the importance of these institutions and the NBA is saying, yes, these institutions are important to America and we wanted to make that known,” said Williams. “And we made it very clear that the biggest need right now, for our students is scholarships, so we will take the dollars that we generate from the NBA All-Star Game and give it directly to our students. And it will have an impact on them persisting towards graduation.”
“To have the All-Stars shining a bright light on the needs of people who all too often don’t have their story told and remain in the shadows that they’re bright light and their encouragement and their support and their attention are going to mean the world to them,” added Lomax.
And even when the final buzzer sounds on Sunday night, the NBA and NBPA will remain committed to advocating for these individuals, schools and causes. The NBA family will continue to take collective action to advance social justice, including through the NBA Foundation, National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, civic engagement, voting access and awareness, and more. This weekend and beyond, it’ll be bigger than basketball.