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By David Pickle
An ambitious initiative in Connecticut this weekend may serve as a template for how institutions can use football weekends to celebrate diversity and build better racial understanding.
The centerpiece of the weekend will be Saturday’s game between New Haven and Lincoln (Pennsylvania), but the Harmony Classic is actually a four-day event that involves all parts of the University of New Haven.
New Haven Athletics Director Debbie Chin said this is the second iteration of the event, the first having been two years when Central Connecticut State hosted North Carolina A&T in a Division I contest.
The Central Connecticut State version proved so popular that an alternate stadium was required to handle the crowd of 8,000. That will not happen at New Haven, which has a flashy new artificial surface.
“We just got blue and gold turf,” Chin said. “I’m not moving this game anywhere!”
Still, measures will be taken to accommodate what is expected to be an extra large crowd. Seating capacity for Ralph F. DellaCamera Stadium is 3,800, but Chin said the school should be able to accommodate a bit more than 4,000.
Both the New Haven and Central Connecticut State events have been supported by the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches.
“When they found out we were playing Lincoln, the Connecticut NAACP approached me to say, hey, we’d like to do this again,” Chin said. “I give them a lot of credit for trying to get out the importance of diversity and racial harmony. Of course, I’m going to jump all over it because it is the fifth goal in the Division II strategic plan.”
Lincoln AD Dianthia Ford-Kee mirrored the sentiment, praising the theme of “Celebrating Diversity and Racial Harmony.” “It mirrors the Division II positioning statement regarding the student-athlete experience of cultivating ‘positive societal attitudes in service to community,’ ” she said.
Not to mention that the week will be fun and interesting.
While the idea for the Harmony Classic came from the Connecticut NAACP, New Haven officials, students and student-athletes have embraced the concept in a major way. Harmony Classic week will involve all four of the institution’s academic colleges, fraternities and sororities, the band, cheerleaders, and virtually every other aspect of student life.
African-American football pioneer Gary Steele delivers a lecture Wednesday as part of New Haven’s Harmony Classic.
In fact, the first two parts of the Harmony Classic are decidedly academic. On Wednesday, Gary Steele, the first African-American to play football at Army and now a senior consultant at Learning Dynamics (and the father of ESPN broadcaster Sage Steele), presented “History – The Backbone of Opportunity.” On Thursday, renowned forensics expert and New Haven professor Dr. Henry C. Lee will present “Equal Justice – Lessons Learned from High Profile Cases.”
After that, the weekend is all about unity.
The Lincoln football team will arrive a day early so it can have dinner Thursday night with the New Haven squad. Chin will arrange the seating so that four players from each team will be seated at the tables of eight.
“They can break some bread before banging heads.” she said.
The Lincoln band will arrive the night before and will practice Friday with the New Haven band. They will play the national anthem together before the game and also will get together Saturday for “God Bless America” in recognition of the 9/11 anniversary. Likewise, the New Haven cheerleaders will practice some unity cheers with the Lincoln cheerleaders on Friday – before hosting them for a spaghetti dinner.
All of the attention is a boon for Lincoln’s fledgling football program, which was re-established three years ago after a 48-year hiatus. Lincoln also recently moved recently from Division III to Division II’s Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
On game day, activities will feature a health and science career fair, a vendor fair, tailgating competition and a kid’s zone. The New Haven admissions office will have a booth, along with the New Haven Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (highlighting Division II) and the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
And then there’s also the football game at 1 p.m. ET.
In short, the joint will be jumping in many different places – enough to add a few gray hairs to the head of the hard-working athletics director.
“As I say to my staff, we’re going to have chaos on Saturday,” Chin said. “As long as we have organized chaos, I’ll be OK.”