Maybe Ed Reed didn’t want to coach at Bethune-Cookman

OPINION: The Bethune-Cookman University debacle has nothing to do with ineptitude, disrespect or dysfunctional historically Black institutions. It is about Ed Reed.

Former NFL star Ed Reed (Screenshot via "Roland Martin Unfiltered")

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio

On Monday, former NFL player-turned-coach Ed Reed joined journalist Roland Martin to discuss the Hall of Fame safety’s ongoing public spat with Bethune-Cookman University after the historically Black institution reneged on a handshake agreement for Reed to lead the Wildcats football program.  

As we reported earlier:

The Ed Reed Foundation announced on social media Saturday that the university declined to ratify Reed’s contract and “won’t make good on the agreement we had in principle, which had provisions and resources best needed to support the student athletes.”

The decision came less than a week after Reed ripped the school in a profanity-laced social media post that went viral. He accused Bethune-Cookman of having a dirty campus and failing to clean his office before he arrived. He threatened to leave then, saying he was having to “clear out trash” while not even being under contract.

During the two-hour discussion, which included the B-CU president Skyping from a weird, circular fortress of solitude, Reed’s examination of college female students’ skimpy clothing and a tirade about “crackheads” dropping out of trees, Martin somehow managed to extract an insightful examination of the issues. What emerged was not a feud between a football coach and an institution, but a run-of-the mill misunderstanding about a job description.

Let’s get this out of the way: 

I have never coached college football, attended Bethune-Cookman University or met Ed Reed.

If you think this fact alone places me among the litany of thinkpiece writers offering an opinion based on something they saw on social media, you should also know that I previously worked in the department of institutional advancement for a historically Black college (Benedict College) while also serving as the sports information director for the football program. Aside from my experience in HBCU fundraising, public information and alumni relations, my reporting on the issues facing historically Black colleges has been cited by HBCU alumni, educators and Black scholars. Furthermore, in 2019, I spent months investigating the structural and institutional issues at one particular institution of higher learning:

Bethune-Cookman University. 

This ain’t no thinkpiece. I’ve interviewed dozens of alumni, investigated the administration, read hundreds of financial documents, talked to students and spoken on the record with three former presidents. When it comes to Bethune-Cookman specifically, this is a know-piece.

As for Reed, he has never held a head coaching job on any level. Although he has served in an advisory role at his alma mater, the University of Miami, he has also never coached college football. While no one can dispute Reed’s reported due diligence before taking the job at the Daytona Beach, Fla., school, when one listens to his complaints about the dysfunction among the administration, the board of trustees, the athletic facilities, the lack of resources and even the school’s location, one can’t help but wonder:

Where the hell did he think he was going to work?

Had he done his research, Reed would have known that his place of employment has been dogged by mismanagement, infighting and outright corruption long before he joined B-CU. Interim President Lawrence M. Drake is the fifth person to lead the 119-year-old institution in the last 10 years, and B-CU has only recently retreated from the precipice of losing its accreditation. A 2019 financial audit revealed that the university had suffered “recurring, significant operational losses, [was] operating under a probationary accreditation status, and its borrowing arrangements are subject to acceleration by the creditors due to a technical default, all of which “raise substantial doubt about [Bethune-Cookman’s] ability to continue as a going concern.” In my previous conversations with the officials from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), they cited the dysfunctional board of trustees as a major cause of the school’s problems. This is the same board that Reed assumed would rubber-stamp his employment contract. 

Aside from the mismanagement, corruption and infighting, there’s also the fact that Bethune-Cookman is a relatively small college (2,444 students enrolled in spring 2022) and its enrollment has steadily declined. And, like most small colleges, B-CU’s athletics program is not a significant source of institutional revenue. While someone coming from a large profitable program like “The U” may have been taken aback by this lack of resources, a coach with HBCU experience would have expected these challenges.

Reed never wanted to work at an HBCU; he wanted to work at an imaginary college in an idyllic white neighborhood filled with women wearing caftans cheering for a football team with resources that would bankrupt the rest of the student body. Streaming a few profanity-filled tirades about the condition of his office, the athletic facilities and the crime in the neighborhood surrounding Bethune-Cookman is like getting a job as a firefighter and then screaming: “How am I supposed to do my job when everything around me is in flames?” 

But Ed Reed didn’t want to work at a functional, well-run university, because a functional, well-run university would never hire Ed Reed. This does not excuse the way Bethune-Cookman handled Reed’s hiring. But it is interesting to note that Reed is holding his potential employer to a standard of professionalism that he himself does not uphold. It is the height of hypocrisy to air his grievances about the college’s incivilities while acting uncivil. Anyone who attributes this debacle to HBCUs should ask themselves if Florida State or a small, predominately white institution, would have reacted differently to Reed’s rant. Bethune-Cookman deciding that Reed was not their guy is no different than when Notre Dame fired George O’Leary before he coached a game when they realized that he wasn’t qualified to lead their team. Or maybe it was like when the University of Alabama canned head football coach Mike Price for inappropriate behavior before he could even take the reins for the Crimson Tide. B-CU determined that Ed Reed should not represent their university because of things that Ed Reed actually did. 

None of this is indicative of the dysfunction and culture of Black institutions. While the narrative that HBCUs are somehow more corrupt and dysfunctional is convenient, there is no factual basis for the sentiment. According to Forbes’ rankings for fiscal health, the average historically Black college is, on average, less dysfunctional, less corrupt and more financially secure than the average predominately white institution (PWI). 

Judging from Reed’s tirades, one would guess that he didn’t know that. Again, I have never met Reed. Much like the people responsible for ratifying Reed’s contract, I can only judge him by his public behavior. What if one of the students whose poor attitudes he cited offended him in the same way as B-CU? What happens when he’s confronted by one of those tree-climbing crackheads on campus? If we’re being objective, there is no way that a responsible organization would hire this person to lead impressionable, young Black men. 

Perhaps Bethune-Cookman’s biggest mistake was hiring someone who is totally unfit for a job. Or maybe Ed Reed assumed that he deserved a position for which he was wholly unqualified to fill. In either case, you gotta admit:

That’s pretty white. 

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2023.

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