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Thursday, September 20, 2007
Updated: September 24, 8:38 AM ET
Is race the reason Delaware won't play Delaware State?

By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2

Dear Delaware football recruit:

On behalf of alumni across the nation, I would like to congratulate you on being recruited to play football at the University of Delaware. As you know, our Blue Hens are six-time national champions and perennially one of the top Division I-AA programs in the country. We have produced dozens of NFL players, ranging from Rich Gannon and Scott Brunner to Ivory Sully and Mike Adams. With our explosive passing attack, I am confident that a wide receiver like you could thrive here.

Delaware football player
Delaware's a I-AA national power, but it won't even play its next-door neighbor.
I also have been informed, however, that you are a student of character, decency and open-mindedness. That, more than anything, is why I am writing this letter: to urge you (and your fellow recruits) not to attend my beloved university.

That's right. Say no to the Blue Hens.

Allow me to be blunt. The University of Delaware's persistent refusal to face Delaware State University in football is cowardly, pig-headed, self-righteous and, worst of all, oozing with racism. As you might know, the two schools -- separated by a mere 50-minute drive from Newark to Dover -- are both ranked in the top 25 of Division I-AA polls. For more than 30 years now, Delaware State has tried to arrange a football game with Delaware, only to be rebuffed time after time. "Name the place and the day, and we'll be there," Rick Costello, Delaware State's athletic director, told me recently. "Delaware-Delaware State would be great for the state, for the students, for ticket sales and school spirit. It's a natural, isn't it?"

You would think so. But within the Delaware athletic department, a law has been established that the Blue Hens will never, ever, ever, ever, ever schedule the Hornets. "We're interested in exploring, but there's no flexibility," Edgar Johnson, the school's athletic director, once told me. "Anyhow, when you begin playing each other it becomes divisive."

I know. Mississippi-Mississippi State. Georgia-Georgia Tech. UCLA-USC. Washington-Washington State. Oregon-Oregon State. UNLV-Nevada. Texas-Texas A&M. Virginia-Virginia Tech. Florida-Florida State. Arizona-Arizona State. Duke-North Carolina. All in-state rivalries, all tearing apart the fabric of regional bliss.

"What a joke," Al Lavan, Delaware State's football coach, told me. "I've been a part of many state rivalries in my career, and they're better than bowl games. Anyone who thinks otherwise has no idea what he's talking about.

"No," says Lavan, "there has to be more to this than just that."

Indeed there is. Unlike the wealthy, white-as-snow University of Delaware (African-American enrollment: 6 percent), Delaware State is a small black college lacking in prestige, finances and facilities (its stadium holds 6,800 spectators; Delaware's holds 22,000). The school came to be in 1891 only because the men running the First State wished not to allow blacks into their grand university. Under the Morrill Act, a state either could open its public educational facilities to all peoples, or start a separate-but-equal school for blacks. Hence, Delaware State.

In the ensuing 116 years, Delaware has treated Delaware State not as academic/athletic brethren, but as a piece of gum affixed to the bottom of its loafer. Del. State is where the scary black people congregate, where "those" types of folk go to college. "You wanna know what I think?" Kevin Tresolini, the Wilmington News Journal's veteran college writer, told me. "I think there are some old rich white guys in the University of Delaware's upper power structure who are afraid this little black school might steal their thunder. They're afraid that if Delaware State beats them it'll raise their stature and lower the University of Delaware's. But I look at it two ways: (a) It's just football, and (b) as an institute of higher learning, aren't you supposed to do the righteous thing?"

Yes, you are. Instead of righteousness, though, the University of Delaware hides behind one lame excuse after another. In the spring of 1991, I wrote an article for The Review, Delaware's student newspaper, titled "Delaware vs. Delaware State: The Sports Rivalry That Never Was." Looking back at the yellowed clip, what leaps off the page is the staggering lameness of Johnson's reasoning. "If you glance at our football schedule," he said, "we're fully scheduled until the year 2000." Forget that college schedules are made to be broken, or that one of the teams Delaware plays annually is the mighty Golden Rams of Division II West Chester (a "traditional rival" the Hens recently stomped for a 14th straight time), or that Johnson arranged a game for last season with the University of Albany and an upcoming clash against South Dakota State, or that Delaware State would be willing to come to Newark in a second's notice.

Oh, yeah. There's also the ol' nobody-wants-to-see-it argument popularized on GoHens.net, a site for blinded Delaware football fans who forget that UD students (oh, them) surely would prefer a game with passion and heart and oomph to yet another battle with, uhg, West Chester "That's what we need to remember here," said Lavan. "At its core, college football is for the students. Not for the alumni, not for the boosters. What do the students want to experience?"

I'm certain you're curious what Johnson and Delaware coach K.C. Keeler have to say about all this. So am I. Unlike the men of Delaware State, however, nobody from Delaware had the guts or principle to express himself, despite my requests for interviews. I've been told that Keeler is open to playing Delaware State, but that his hands are tied. I've been told that Johnson is open to playing Delaware State, but that his hands are tied, too. I've been told that this whole thing has nothing to do with race or class or the fright of losing to an in-state school, and that I'm making a big whoop-to-do out of nothing. I've been told that the Keebler Elf resides in my left shoe, right next to Max Venable and Erin Moran; that Tupac is alive and well and skinning emus in Melbourne; that dogs fly and cats dance; and that Oprah is really a one-legged truck driver named Stu.

In the end, it doesn't matter what we're told. What matters is who we are. What we stand for. What's right and what's wrong, and which side we opt to represent. Are we willing to speak out for what we believe, or do we say nothing and go along with the same ol', same ol'?

Best of luck in your college career. Wherever you wind up I'm certain you'll make an excellent choice.

Sincerely,

Jeff Pearlman
University of Delaware Class of 1994

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at anngold22@gmail.com.