Because spectator sports play a dominant role in American culture, many have tried to use them to change our society.  Such social engineering happens in America’s inner cities, which would come as no surprise to most people.  But it also happens in such unlikely places as the Arrowhead Region of northeastern Minnesota and, specifically, in the Mesabi Iron Range that lies within it.

Minnesota has an extensive junior-college system, and several schools are located within the Arrowhead Region, including Hibbing Community College in Hibbing; Lake Superior in Duluth; Itasca in Grand Rapids; Mesabi in Virginia; Vermillion in Ely; and Rainy River in International Falls.  These schools have athletic programs (with the exception of Lake Superior Community College), which include football.

Hibbing’s football program is over 80 years old.  Yet these days, there appears to be a shortage of football players in the frozen tundra. Last season, a good many of the Hibbing Cardinals were African-American, recruited from high schools in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  Why did they leave their homes in the sunny South for the icy cold of Minnesota?  These students will say that they just want to play football and will go wherever and to whomever will take them, even if they have never seen snow before or morning temperatures of 32 below.  And Southern schools can afford to be choosy when it comes to finding players, as there is a surplus of football talent in the South.  (One might see a similarity here between football recruits and our urgent need for industrious illegal immigrants who do the jobs we are unwilling to do.)

Like all community colleges, Hibbing tries to draw in students closer to home.  In the not-so-distant past, football players at Hibbing were locals.  But economic downturns in the region’s mining industry led to depopulation, which resulted in fewer students enrolling in the local junior colleges and even fewer signing up for football.  With rosters to fill and dorms for student-athletes already in place, coaches in the Iron Range began looking South.  Why not recruit players from across Minnesota—especially from the inner cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where kids would have jumped at the chance to play college football?  Well, for one thing, Southern schools, in general, have spring football.  In Minnesota, many of the school districts don’t have the funding for junior-high teams, and local Pop Warner leagues aren’t as popular as hockey, wrestling, baseball, and even soccer.  In the Gopher State, a kid who is good at football is not going to play at the junior-college level.

So, to get an edge on their opponents, Minnesota’s junior-college coaches and athletic directors go out of state for players, which takes them South, where good African-American players are in abundance.  Besides, who wouldn’t guess that black athletes from the South would be better at football than Minnesota white boys, especially local jocks from the Mesabi Range?  Coaches believe in the stereotype just like most everybody else.  On Hibbing’s 2006 squad, out of 63 players, 3 were Minnesotans; 22 were Floridians.

Of course, Iron Range recruiters don’t exactly get the pick of the litter athletically, let alone academically.  After all, if these student athletes were the best, they could afford to stay closer to home.  Many of these transplanted players don’t even remain after their first season.  A combination of academic deficiency and homesickness sends many of them back South, saddled with student loans.  “They’re just using us,” one Rainy River player admitted to a KSTP-TV ( St. Paul) investigative reporter.  The Hibbing Cardinals’ 2006 squad finished with a 4-5 record.  The team’s cumulative GPA was 1.8.  All but five of the players were freshmen.

In late October 2006, three Hibbing players and a former player were charged with the gang-rape of an 18-year-old female high-school senior.  Two of the HCC players were from Miami, and the third was from South Carolina.  A string of similar incidents on the Range involving the local whites and African-American athletes goes back to the early 1990’s.  “It’s a tension issue, and it has been for a lot of years,” Bill Hanna, editor of the Mesabi Daily News said in an article about the incident written for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.  “And then also, there is a certain racial component that’s included.”  To allay local concerns about the potential for more violence, and because of poor academic performance, Hibbing administrators decided that the prudent thing to do was to shut the whole program down.  This also prompted the governing board that runs Arrowhead’s junior colleges to admonish football coaches to review their programs’ academic and admission standards and to recruit more players from Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

Not everyone was in favor of shutting down the program.  At a community forum, one player put the question in stark terms.  “I beg you, please don’t take this away from us.  Where I come from, either you sell drugs, or you do something academic-wise or athletics-wise to stay out of trouble.  We might go home and do worse.”  Others could only come up with one word to justify retaining the football program: diversity.  After all, supporters of the Hibbing football program had gloried in the diversity that their school’s recruiting efforts had brought.  (For some, having Poles, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Finns, Irish, Swedes, and Indians on the same roster isn’t diverse enough; besides, all whites look alike nowadays.)

But what price diversity?  Is it worth importing gang rape and general racial tension?  Is diversity worth promoting poor academic performance and lowering academic standards?  Is diversity worth taking kids far away from their homes and their families, leaving them with debt and broken promises of gridiron glory?

For Hibbing Community College, diversity proved too expensive.