Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
David Durand comes back to town this week from his native New Orleans for his senior year at Howard University. He’s still on a baseball scholarship at the school. His playing days as a Bison, however, are over.
Everybody’s playing days at the school are over.
“I should have seen it coming,” Durand tells me by cell phone. “But I was too busy playing ball.”
What Durand thinks he should have seen coming was his alma mater’s decision to kill off the baseball program, which was announced in late May by Athletic Director Sondra Norrell-Thomas. At the time, the AD said baseball got the ax because “we lack facilities to support” a team. (The wrestling program was cut at the same time, for the same reason.) The announcement was made after the spring semester had ended, so most players had already gone to their hometowns for the summer break. That meant that the players hurt by the ruling weren’t available to publicly protest it. The timing also guaranteed that the affected underclassmen wouldn’t have time to find a new school to play for next season.
Those orphaned by
Norrell-Thomas’ decision aren’t buying her rationale. “That makes no sense at all,” says Brad Burris, an outfielder and rising senior from Hammond, La.
Durand, an accounting major who last season played “everything but first base and catcher” for the team, thinks he knows what was really behind the move.
“This is about Title IX,” he says, referring to the 1972 federal act that compels colleges to spend equally on male and female athletics. “The school spends a lot of money on football and men’s basketball. I’m sure that causes problems with [Title IX]. If she would have just said baseball had to go because of Title IX, which is what really is going on and everybody knows that, then we wouldn’t have been happy, but we couldn’t have argued at all. But a lack of facilities? What’s that mean?”
Durand points out that there’s a very serviceable diamond where the Bison could roam right across the street from Howard’s Georgia Avenue campus at Banneker High School, for example. Yet for reasons nobody on the team understands, Howard played only a handful of games at Banneker last season. The team’s primary home field was about an hour away in Anne Arundel County, a place called Joe Cannon Field. A group of Howard baseball parents is trying to raise money to turn Banneker, which is owned by the city, into the university’s home field, but players don’t think that the effort has much chance of getting the AD to stay the team’s execution.
“I’ve tried so many times to get [Norrell-Thomas] to answer us as to why we don’t play [at Banneker],” Durand says. “But she’s never available to me or anybody. She never was available to any of us, ever, for anything, since I came to Howard.”
Norrell-Thomas did not return a phone call for this column. In a 1997 interview with the Washington Post, she admitted that Howard was having problems complying with Title IX, but said the school would not be cutting teams in order to come into compliance.
Whatever the real reason for the baseball cuts, Howard athletics have been in absolute disarray for a while now. In November, the NCAA announced that a two-year investigation of the school had uncovered serious violations in several major sports programs, including even the participation of ineligible students in varsity sports, and cited the Howard administration for a general lack of oversight. In July, the NCAA ruled that Howard would be on probation for the next three years as a result of those crimes.
If treating athletes like crap were an NCAA violation, Howard’s punishment would be a lot more severe.
There was, for example, the apparel issued to the baseball team by the athletic department.
“I know my sweat pants were 4 years old before I got them,” says Burris. “I know that doesn’t happen at other [Division I] schools. But I wore ’em around campus anyway, even though they had somebody else’s sweat and whatever on ’em. I was proud to be a Howard athlete, and it made me feel good to play ball and to represent the school.”
It wasn’t just the Bisons’ practice wear that was substandard.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was a very little kid, but none of the Little League or club teams were financed worse than Howard,” Durand says. “We never had the bats and helmets we needed. The shirts and jerseys I got for games were about 8 years old. We didn’t need ‘throwback’ uniforms. We were already wearing them.”
Adds Burris: “We went on one road trip and they didn’t even give us hats to wear. Here we are playing in Florida against Florida International, a team that was ranked like 15th in the country at the time, and we’re wearing these cheap, blue, one-size-fits-all hats that we had to buy ourselves at a Kmart of Wal-Mart or something. They didn’t even have an H on them. We never had belts. We bought our own socks. I tell you, you wouldn’t believe the way Howard treats its athletes. We always just kept playing and kept our mouths shut. Now, we wonder why we put up with it.”
The transportation, or lack thereof, was also evidence of neglect. A road trip to Lubbock, Texas, during which the Bison took to the diamond to face another nationally ranked squad, the well-funded Red Raiders from Texas Tech, ended quite badly.
“We flew in to BWI, and nobody from the school was there to pick us up,” says Burris. “There’s supposed to be a bus to get us back to campus. But this time, there was nothing. Coach [Jimmy Williams] was on the phone, making calls, but he couldn’t get anybody at the school to help. It made us feel ridiculous, just sitting around the airport.”
After several hours of waiting at the airport for a ride, Williams ended up hiring limousines to take the team back into D.C. He paid for the limos on his own, say Durand and Burris. By last year, players say Williams was paying for their meals with his own money on road trips.
“You had to go through what we all went through to believe it,” says Durand. “The whole thing was a trip. Maybe someday I’ll laugh about it. When I leave Howard University, I’d like to think I’ll leave as a better person than when I came to campus. But I know I’m not leaving here a better baseball player.” —Dave McKenna