Several Factors in Spelman Athletics Cuts

With changes in its NCAA conference and student-health issues, the reasons to ditch sports were clear.

Spelman College's cross-country team huddles before a tournament. (Courtesy of Spelman Athletics)

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“Think bigger and more space so those who choose to work out will have access to that,” Tatum said. The hope is that the expanded wellness program will address some of the health problems that plague black women — including some of Spelman’s students. 

All first-year students at Spelman are required to have a physical and submit a health form — a state requirement — which the school’s director of health services receives and uses to analyze the health needs of the community. “Based on that information we know that we have students who are already struggling with hypertension, already struggling with Type 2 diabetes, et cetera,” Tatum said.

The Health and Human Service Department’s stats show that four in five African-American women are overweight or obese, while the American Diabetes Association reports that 3.7 million, or 14.7 percent of African Americans 20 years or older, have diabetes. Tatum declined to share specific details about the percentage of Spelman students suffering from hypertension and other ailments, but she did say, “Our student body reflects those national trends.”

She said many afflictions like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes are linked to being overweight and physically inactive, a reason the college wants to help its students develop wellness and fitness habits. The school is also steadily making changes to its cafeteria offerings, including vegetarian and vegan alternatives and smaller dessert portions along with traditional Southern cuisine. The school is also re-evaluating its physical education offerings (two PE courses are required for graduation) to ensure that they focus on improving personal fitness. For example, archery will be replaced with a class that’s more physically active.

“I think Spelman is calling dramatic attention to this. It is an issue which I would hope HBCUs and all American colleges and universities would pay more attention to,” said Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, which is involved with 38 of the 105 HBCUs, of which Spelman is one. “This is certainly an issue which is significant in the African-American community, but preventive wellness undertakings is something that is a national crisis.”

The idea to withdraw from the Great South Athletic Conference occurred last winter when Spelman learned that it was losing members. The NCAA requires a minimum of seven institutions to form a conference, and two or three of the co-ed schools in the Great South decided to leave and join a league that offered more opportunities for football. As a result, Spelman considered joining another conference, but that would mean that its teams would have to travel further away and the athletics program would have to add two more sports.

It currently costs Spelman approximately $1 million to run the athletic program, and it would have cost more to join another conference that’s farther away — meaning students would miss more classes. To Tatum, it just didn’t add up. Also, the sports program consistently averaged less than five percent of students while the wellness program was popular but underfunded.