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EDITORIAL: SC State has something else to celebrate

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On Dec. 18, South Carolina State University made major sports news with a victory over Jackson State and coach Deion Sanders in the Celebration Bowl. The win sealed the HBCU national championship for the Bulldogs.

Now as another team of Bulldogs, these from Georgia, and Alabama get ready to play in the College Football Playoff national title game, the Orangeburg Bulldogs are again in the spotlight with some comparisons.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated, an ESPN platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.

Jackson writes it may be unrealistic to consider SC State or Jackson State facing a Georgia or Alabama for the national title, but when it comes to graduating Black players, SC State and Jackson State are just as good as teams in the CFB Playoff.

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“In my 26th annual Graduation Gap Bowl, SC State and Jackson State had NCAA Graduation Success Rates (GSR) of 87% and 85% for Black players. That is on par with the 94% for Black players at Michigan, the 84% at both Alabama and Cincinnati, and smokes the embarrassing 55% at Georgia.

“Those rates at Jackson State and SC State are doubly impressive because historically Black college and university (HBCU) athletic departments have a fraction of the resources of predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Georgia's athletic department staff directory has 25 people listed under student services — the vast majority involved in academic support. Alabama has 16 staffers listed under academics. Cincinnati lists 12 in academics. Michigan lists 11 under its academic success program.”

Meanwhile, Jackson State lists five staffers for academics. And SC State lists only one.

Jackson introduces Melissa Dawson, SC State’s executive associate athletic director of compliance and academic services, who tells him the success is built by creating a culture that compensates for lack of resources, as athletes utilize the same pool of tutors available to all students.

"It's just constant communication," she said the day before SC State beat Jackson State 31-10 in the Cricket Celebration Bowl.

"It's the five-minute hallway conversation. It's making it clear to them they can ask questions and ask for help if they need it. It's those conversations that help them see the big picture down the line of why they need to get their education," Dawson said. "It's not about how many people you have on your academics staff. It's how you affect the students."

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While the NCAA has no rules to hold schools accountable for racial disparities, Dawson, who has worked in academic support at Power 5 schools such as Kentucky and South Carolina, which happen to have Black graduation rates of 84% and 90%, respectively, for their football teams, praised her Power 5 and mid-major colleagues around the nation who use their resources to focus on success rates. "It takes tireless energy," she said.

"Everyone thinks it's easy at a program that has the money. But in the background, people are putting in 60-, 70- and 80-hour weeks to make sure the kids have a great experience.

"If we can get them to a place where football is a vehicle, that's a great place to be. If pro football becomes an extra piece of the puzzle, that's fine. But the biggest thing we're going to celebrate is the degree."

In a top 25 for Black Graduation Success Rates made from this season's bowl teams, S.C. State and Jackson State would be nationally ranked, with the Bulldogs tied for 14th and Jackson State tied for 21st.

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As Jackson concludes: “Given how they create a culture for success in under-resourced environments on small budgets, and how HBCUs are traditionally marginalized by the NCAA, this is indeed something to celebrate.”

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