Wrestling, gymnastics, lacrosse: Higher enrollment at HBCUs invites more sport options

The outrage, frustration and emotional trauma Jahi Jones felt as he watched video of police murdering George Floyd three years ago compelled him to seek ways to lift up other young Black men.

He just wasn’t sure how to do it.

Jones had attended the University of Maryland on an academic scholarship and was a walk-on for the wrestling team. He became team captain, competed at the NCAA championships and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He later noticed that, in 2021, Black men made up half the 10 Division I national champions but fewer than 10% of Division I wrestlers.

That’s when everything started to click.

“I would start thinking about ways that I could get involved to help inside of the wrestling community and just make things more fair and equitable,” he said. “It was just seeing the lack of diversity, but also seeing that … we excel inside the sport, but (we are) just not having those same opportunities to develop.”

Now 25, Jones is the executive director of the HBCU Wrestling Initiative. With a major assist from that program, Morgan State in the next school year will become the only historically Black college or university (HBCU) to offer Division I wrestling. The school had cut the sport back in 1997.

Kenny Monday — the first Black wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal — will be the coach. The Baltimore school also will add women’s acrobatics and tumbling, which could someday be a full-fledged NCAA championship sport.

Morgan State’s additions mirror a growing phenomenon at HBCUs as they ride a wave of popularity not seen in decades: Many are adding sports beyond the more typical offerings of football, basketball and track and field.

The Associated Press contacted 46 Division I and D-II HBCUs and five conference offices about the trend over the past decade; 20 schools responded, saying they have added at least 42 NCAA championship or emerging sports since 2016, including at least 32 sports since 2020 alone. Several of these new teams are scheduled to start competition next school year. Only three of the newly added sports were track and field, two were football and none were basketball.

Division II Bluefield State has been the busiest — the West Virginia school has added 13 sports since 2020.

Smaller schools are making moves, too. Fisk University, located in Nashville, added women’s gymnastics last season. Talladega College in Alabama is slated to add women’s gymnastics as early as this fall.

HBCU administrators say the new sports fill a need, noting that Black parents are increasingly choosing different, “non-traditional” options for their children. Sports such as gymnastics, lacrosse and volleyball have gained more Black competitors at the NCAA level in recent years, and HBCUs are adapting by increasing their offerings.

Chara Hinds, a sophomore from Barbados who competes in women’s triathlon at Delaware State, said the changes already are making a difference.

“It means a lot because it gives me the opportunity to participate in triathlon and still go to an HBCU, and as a person of color, that is a one-of-a-kind experience,” she said.

This trend picked up in 2020. The rise in social awareness that followed Floyd’s slaying and a wave of interest in HBCUs fueled a spike in donations, helping support the clear interest in Black athletes interested in non-traditional sports.

“I think it’s just an evolution of where we (Black people) are as a society,” said Delaware State athletic director Alecia Gadson, whose school added women’s triathlon in 2021 and will be adding women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse in the next school year. “We’re thinking differently. You know, when you have a kid now, you don’t have to say, ’Oh, I’m going to push them into basketball just because they’re tall. You may say, ‘Hey, you know what? They might be able to do volleyball.’ I think it’s a mindset.”