Happy Black History Month, everybody.
Usually when I think of topics to write a column about, one either organically pops up and I can easily write about it or I have to give it a little bit of thought, and then I can get to writing it.
But this time, I can't lie, I had many thoughts and waffled on whether I wanted to write it or not.
Scratch that, I knew that I wanted to write it. My issue was with whether I should write it or not.
I don't know how it will be received, hopefully positively, but I'm going with it and will see how it goes.
In this column, I want to celebrate the black presence within McNeese State athletics. I think I can make a case that there has never been a greater black presence within the athletic department than right now, and that gives me reason to smile.
In the span of a couple weeks, McNeese hired the first black volleyball and football head coaches in program history.
Why is that big? Because of representation. From a demographics standpoint, Lake Charles is pretty black and white. According to the United States census website, according to population estimates from July 1, 2019, 48.5 percent of the population in Lakes Charles is black or African American, while 45.9 percent is white. Of course, if you expand to include surrounding parishes, the numbers will change.
For a long time, young black boys have been able to go to McNeese football games and see players who look like them. But it's different to see the head coach look like them. The McNeese head football coach can easily be argued as the most recognized person in Lake Charles. Maybe Scooter Hobbs can give some competition, but it's probably one of those two.
But for young black children to go to a football game or a volleyball match and see that the person who leads the team look like them is huge because representation matters.
I highly doubt that race was a factor to the athletic department, McNeese State President Daryl Burckel, the board of trustees or anyone else involved in those coaching searches. That doesn't make it any less important or significant.
Barring any other coaching changes, Frank Wilson will go into the 2020 season as the lone black head coach in the Southland Conference. As of today, 25 of the 126 Football Championship Subdivision head coaches (19.6 percent) are black. That figure doesn't include Arkansas-Pine Bluff, which recently lost its head coach to an Football Bowl Subdivision coordinator position.
But if you take away the MEAC and SWAC — conferences that feature all historically black colleges and universities which have traditionally hired black head coaches — the other FCS conferences have seven head coaches in the 108 programs (6.4 percent). If I add North Carolina A&T, an HBCU that plans to move from the MEAC to the Big South in 2021, that's eight black head coaches out of 109 programs (7.3 percent).
Simply put, there's not a lot of representation outside of the programs that have traditionally hired black head coaches. Given the number of black football players, it is important. A school is going to hire whom it chooses to, and I'd imagine quality is one of the biggest attributes when it comes to making that hire.
But I can't sit here and lie like it's not a big deal that Wilson got hired. It means something.
As for new McNeese volleyball head coach Kristee Porter, her hiring was just as important. Her introduction was overshadowed some by Wilson's hiring, but she gives all of the same representation I've been talking about, but to another sport.
Maybe a little black girl who never thought about playing or coaching volleyball goes to a match and sees her and gets inspired to play the sport. Even if she's inspired just to go to another match, a purpose has been served.
In the end the coaches have to win. That's what it always boils down to. If they win, all will be OK. If they don't, then things could go the other way.
But it's not just those coaching positions where the representation matters. Behind the scenes, McNeese has Michael Johnson as an assistant athletic director for event management and facilities. Phillip Mitchell Jr., a digital media student assistant, is responsible for a baseball video from last weekend posted online of a catcher putting his equipment on like it's a pit stop in a car race. That video has more than one million Twitter views and three million engagements on all social media platforms.
Representation matters to show that any job anywhere at any level can be done, no matter who it is.
Of course, the athletes continue to impress on the field. Senior track and field athlete Alanna Arvie has won three SLC Women's Indoor Athlete of the Week honors this season. Sophomore Payton Harden has solidified himself as one of the baseball team's regular outfielders. Sha'markus Kennedy is a legitimate SLC Player of the Year candidate in men's basketball.
I also can't forget my coworker Warren Arceneaux. He may not be directly tied to McNeese (he covers some games when I can't), but he's been a part of covering the Lake Charles community for more than 20 years and has covered plenty of past, present and those who will be the future of McNeese athletes.
Again, the representation is important, point blank.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and again, happy Black History Month.
David Berry covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at email@example.com