A pair of stories historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) squared off on the football field on Sunday, but it wasn’t the score of the closely contested nationally televised game on all-sports cable network ESPN that fans were talking about when the clock struck zero.
Instead — while fans and especially alumni of the dueling Florida A&M Rattlers (FAMU) and Jackson State Tigers were happy to see Black college football getting some coveted national TV time — there was one glaring absence that seemed to get most of the attention despite the game being decided by a single point: The halftime show.
It didn’t help that FAMU and Jackson State are routinely credited for having the top bands, amplifying the level of anticipation viewers had for the game’s halftime performances.
Exacerbating issues is the fact that halftime shows at HBCU football games carry a certain cultural significance beyond entertainment value.
Whether it was because of ESPN’s well-documented diversity issues or just an overall tone-deaf lack of awareness, somebody at the network decided against televising the HBCUs’ bands performing at halftime, a portion of the game that is arguably more important to some fans than whoever has more points after the end of four quarters.
The omission prompted viewers to take to social media and express what seemed to evolve from disbelief to become full-blown outrage.
The game carried much significance aside from the bands, including the fact that Sunday was the first time that FAMU’s football game played a game in more than a year after the Tallahassee school shut down its program because of the pandemic.
It was also the latest game for Jackson State Head Coach Deion Sanders, a Hall of Fame football legend and former NFL star who took over the Tigers last year with a vow to help raise the national profile of HBCU football.
Sanders has delivered and then some, even following a pandemic-shortened season and a brief dust-up with the media earlier this summer.
But none of that mattered to fans who tuned in on Sunday to watch the Rattlers and Tigers on ESPN specifically to see their bands perform.
To the uninitiated, HBCU bands performing during halftime are bucket list-level must-see material.
Adding to that truth is the fact that HBCU bands’ performances as we know them today — complete with second-to-none dance steps while still perfectly carrying a tune — are largely credited to Dr. William P. Foster, FAMU’s band director nearly 70 years ago who incorporated the lively moves into routines that favored modern music over traditional military songs.
“Now when students and families gather to attend several HBCU football games, the most anticipated part is the half time performance,” HBCU Buzz wrote in a still-relevant piece about the significance of HBCU bands published a decade ago. “For many, the band’s halftime performance is the main reason for their game attendance and support of the university. It is the heightened feeling of ecstasy and school spirit the band performance exhilarates that causes an always memorable time of love and fellowship.”
The absence of the above was the source of Sunday’s outrage on social media.
ESPN went on a media blitz ahead of this college football season bringing attention to its dedication to televising HBCU games. It would seemingly follow that the network also would do its due diligence and follow through with its commitment to Black college football.
While it was not immediately clear if the viewers’ complaints were heard by ESPN’s bosses, it will be crystal clear on Thursday, the next time ESPN is scheduled to televise another HBCU football game — Edward Waters plays against Benedict on ESPNU — as part of a record-setting number of Black college football games on TV and streamed online this fall.
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