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As the United States grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, years of mounting racial tension over police brutality reached its boiling point with the killing of George Floyd in May. Although Floyd was not the first to lose his life at the hands of the police, the heartbreaking visual sparked a range of emotions — the more resounding one being a move back toward self-sufficiency in the Black community. We have all heard of Black Wall Street. We have all heard the mantra of the power of the Black dollar. We have even discussed the possibilities of superstar Black athletes staying “home” and choosing to spend their college careers at historically black colleges and universities. The conversations has bubbled to the surface only to eventually fade time and time again. But, this time is different, right?
The reason HBCUs were created in the first place was to allow Black students to pursue higher education. Yet, more often than not, they’re not even a blip on the radar of some of the nation’s top athletes and scholars. In many instances, there is the perception that an HBCU education would be undervalued in lieu of predominantly white institutions aka PWIs. That stigma spills over into athletics, where Power Five schools take center stage. Many top-tier athletes feel that they simply won’t get enough exposure at an HBCU. On any given Saturday, you can flip on the television and catch the likes of Duke basketball or Clemson football. It is rare to be able to watch an HBCU game from the comfort of your own home. You’d likely have to wait until the Celebration Bowl, which pits the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference against one another at the end of the season. Lauded as the Black college football national championship, the Celebration Bowl is often the only time you can catch an HBCU playing football on ESPN.
If you want to catch a regular season contest, you have to catch it in person. Now, don’t get me wrong. The HBCU game day experience is nothing short of amazing. No one knows how to bring the heat like an HBCU marching band. The sense of family closeness that was brought into our homes by way of “A Different World” envelopes you as soon as you walk into the stadium or gym. However, the facilities of most HBCUs pale in comparison to those at Power Five schools — and therein lies another issue. Many simply lack the funding to be able to build and sustain top-of-the-line facilities to compete with PWIs.
Those two large factors automatically put HBCUs behind the 8-ball when it comes to recruiting. To sell your program takes money; money that is not necessarily in abundance when it comes to athletic programs. This is ironic considering the fact that the majority of top athletes in revenue generating college sports are Black. Therefore, a key component in fighting systemic oppression is putting and keeping money in the Black community. While it may have been reduced to lip service in the past, the Back to Black initiative could finally be taking shape.
Making the HBCU Jump
One such initiative that has developed is “HBCU Jump.” Per its website, it’s an action network assembled to promote the recruitment of top-tier high school and collegiate athletes to HBCU athletic programs. The team includes former NFL Pro Bowler Antoine Bethea, a former Howard athlete himself, and targets four- and five- star recruits to encourage them to commit to HBCUs. With the chips stacked against these programs, there has to be an all hands on deck approach.
As with many things, change must start from the top and that includes hiring coaches who have reached the top level of their respective sports. People, especially kids, want to learn from someone who has “been there.” Deion Sanders is arguably one of the best two-sport athletes in history, and his hiring as the new head football coach at Jackson State University will undoubtedly put the program on the radar of promising student athletes and boosters. A Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Sanders has only been the head coach for a month and has already made an impact. In the last month, defensive tackle Braezhon Ross chose JSU over the likes of Arizona, Arizona State, and Colorado. Additionally, cornerback Javorrius Selmon transferred to JSU from Mississippi State.
Just like athletes, boosters and alumni love a winning team and are more likely to donate and fundraise for the program. The university reported that the marketing value of their athletics department increased by an estimate of $19 million less than two weeks after Sanders’ hiring.
Sanders is not the first former professional athlete to coach at an HBCU, but he is certainly one of the most visible. In fact, the NFL was set to hold its first ever HBCU Combine last March before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. With the NFL making an effort to increase visibility, in addition to additional booster contributions, more blue chip recruits may start to consider HBCUs when deciding where to continue their careers.
High Percentage Shots
All sports are not created equal. For example, the talents of a basketball player are visible regardless of the skill level of the rest of the team; not so much for football. The talents of a running back or quarterback are more likely to be obscured when lining up behind a subpar offensive line. For reasons such as that, the pilgrimage back to HBCUs may be a bit more attainable for basketball players. Zion Williamson would have been Zion Williamson regardless of where he attended school. However, going to perennial powerhouse Duke didn’t hurt.
Although Williamson is from South Carolina, he more than likely wasn’t recruited by any of the HBCUs in his home state or North Carolina. When it comes to the pursuit of elite athletes, North Carolina Central University head coach LeVelle Moton says that programs such as his simply don’t have the funds required to court them. During the Quick Out The Blocks podcast in June, Moton admitted that most HBCUs can’t afford to take flights back and forth across the country to get recruits. His specific focus has to be directed at those who have openly express an interest in joining his program. In other words, HBCUs have to take the high percentage shots – they can’t afford not to.
One such recruit who has continued to make waves is Mikey Williams – one of the top athletes of the Class of 2023. Williams, who recently transferred to Lake Norman Christian School from San Ysidro, shook up the hoops world in July with his tweet about possibly committing to an HBCU.
Williams’ mother is a Hampton alumni and played softball for the Lady Pirates. Hampton, North Carolina Central, Tennessee State, Texas State, and Alabama State are all HBCUs that were in the top ten for the 6’2 guard when he released his list in July. It will be interesting to see if those schools remain in competition since he relocated to North Carolina, a basketball mecca and home to ACC powers Duke and the University of North Carolina.
Whether or not Williams will be the player who forever changes the game for HBCUs remains to be seen. However, there is a guy by the name of Makur Maker who is right here, right now. Maker, a five-star forward, shook the table when he chose to take his talents to Howard University, choosing to be a Bison over several high-profile programs including UCLA and Kentucky. While this is huge, it will take more players than him to change the tide. Blue chip recruits will have to come year after year to make a change.
“If you look good, you play good. If you play good, they pay good,” – Deion Sanders
Let’s face it, everyone loves a winner. The movement of more high profile athletes to HBCUs could drive more revenue to their programs via television deals. High school basketball is different these days with powerhouse high school and AAU teams routinely playing on national television. The popularity of such athletes brings visibility and revenue from apparel sales in additional to possible money from TV. Mikey Williams has reached a first-name basis status with 2.6 million Instagram followers and at least 42,800 Twitter followers. His tweet about HBCUs was liked by more than 43,000 Twitter users.
With increased revenue, programs can afford to upgrade their facilities and boost their recruiting budgets. If you build it, they will (maybe) come. While this certainly isn’t something that can be done overnight, the process certainly appears to be underway and an alley-oop from NBA star Chris Paul certainly helps things. Although Paul played his college ball for ACC school Wake Forest, he has been very vocal about his support for HBCUs as nearly everyone in his family attended HBCUs. Paul isn’t new to this, but many took notice of his fashion choices in the NBA Bubble during this season’s playoffs. Paul was seen in various hoodies and wore customized sneakers with the names of a different HBCU for every game. He broke down the thought process behind his decision with Slam Online.
“We’re from North Carolina. I grew up down the street from Winston Salem State University. We’ve known about the North Carolina Centrals, the Livingstones, the A&Ts, the Hamptons, the Howards — I could go on and on. So, that’s naturally part of my culture. I’m one of the only people in my family that didn’t attend an HBCU. But, deep down inside, I feel like I did or I wish I would have.
“What I’ve understood in doing the research is that a lot of these HBCUs are the schools that are educating our culture, our people. So, why not try to make sure they can get the same recognition? Why can’t we try to make sure they’re funded properly?
“LeVelle Moton, who’s the head coach at North Carolina Central, which is a top-tier program year in and year out, we’re trying to get them the same facilities you see at Kentucky.”
At first glance, it seems to be a tall task to convince teenagers who grew up revering the Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Bruins, and so on to bypass the glitz and glam of the bigger name programs and take a chance on up-and-coming HBCU programs. However, with all hands on deck, and a fair dosage of star power, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. As the playing field evens out, could we see a permanent and sustainable shift?