The summer of 2020 has been dubbed the “summer of racial reckoning” as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery took center stage. Although racism is present in every fiber of the foundation of this country, suddenly it was put on front street. Corporations put out statements, and professional sports associations incorporated signage and pledged donations to help reverse centuries of systemic racism. Still, one couldn’t help but wonder if this was a movement or simply a moment. One particular area of interest was a “Back to Black” movement urging top collegiate athletic prospects to take their talents to HBCUs instead of predominately white institutions (PWIs).
Sure, it’s an honorable notion – but was it feasible and realistic? It’s been two years and the movement is still going strong. Deion Sanders’ tenure at the helm of the Jackson State University football team has certainly helped with visibility. Since Coach Prime’s arrival in Mississippi in November of 2020, a record number of HBCU football games have aired on television, new and improved facilities have been constructed or renovated, and a number of top recruits have rerouted their talents from PWIs. Most notably, Travis Hunter, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2022 class, pulled a switcharoo on signing day when we flipped his commitment to Sanders’ alma mater, Florida State University, and signed to play for him at JSU instead. Additionally, the Jackson State football program graced the cover of Sports Illustrated earlier this month. It was the first time an HBCU athlete has appeared on the cover of the coveted sports bible in almost thirty years. The last time was September of 1994 when the late Alcorn State great Steve McNair appeared during his Heisman finalist year. All of this is well and good, but sustaining the movement will take stable funding – a luxury that HBCUs have not had in years past.
When Sean “Diddy” Combs took to the 2022 BET Awards stage to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award, his pledge of $1 million each to Howard University and to the Jackson State football program during his acceptance was just one example of the culture putting their money where their mouth is. His continued support of his alma mater should come as no surprise and when it comes to JSU, the mogul stated, “I’m gonna drop another million dollars on Deion Sanders and Jackson State because we should play for us.” That last part isn’t just a catchy slogan that the Harlem native thought would sound good. He was part of an aggressive attempt – along with Steph Curry and Michael Rubin – to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers back in 2017 (when former owner Jerry Richardson sold the team amid sexual and racial misconduct allegations). Hedge fund billionaire David Tepper beat the group out when he bought the team for a record $2.2 billion. That was over four years ago and there are still no African American owners in the NFL — a league that celebrated its 100th season in 2019 and is made up of 70% Black players. We have to start somewhere.
The voices of most Power Five head football coaches were notably absent during the summer of 2020. Let’s be honest, none of them felt even fractionally threatened by the Back to Black movement. After all, how could HBCUs compete with the lush facilities, high visibility, and billion dollar boosters? There’s power in the dollar and with successful artists and entrepreneurs like Diddy reinvesting into their own communities, they’d better watch out. Alabama head coach Nick Saban is already feeling the heat, as evidenced by his claims that Sanders and JSU lured Hunter to the school with a $1 million NIL deal. Now why would a seven-time national champion coach be so worried about little old JSU? One look at the new facilities and Diddy’s new pledge, and you can see why. While Harlem’s Bad Boy specifically named the football program in his pledge, other hip hop stars are also doing their best to try to even the playing field through philanthropy.
Last month, Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Foundation awarded $1 million in scholarships to 100 members of the 2022 graduating class. The donation spanned 38 HBCUs, including Prairie View A&M University, where the rapper’s grandfather attended and later served as an educator. In a press release, the Astroworld rapper stated, “Excellence abounds in every Black household, but too often opportunity does not – and Black students are left behind or counted out.” He went on to say that he hopes to increase the foundation’s contributions next year. Each student was rewarded $10,000 from the Wayne Webster Scholarship Fund, named after the Scott’s grandfather. The father of two previously assisted HBCU freshmen back in 2020. In March, Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame teamed up with Wasserman Music and HBCU Heroes to award $5,000 in support of an HBCU student focusing on STEM, innovation, entrepreneurship or business. While not an athletic-focused scholarship, it is important to note the off-the-field jobs in collegiate and professional sports as well. We need diversity in the front office just as much as on the court, field, track, etc. It is clear that the NFL has a discrimination issue when it comes to hiring Black head coaches. The league is currently being sued for just that by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores and a number of other current and former Black coaches. In short, people tend to hire those that look like them, hence the need for more people of color in general manager, front office positions.
It’s not just the seasoned rappers flexing their philanthropic muscles. Cordae partnered with Disney Dreamers Academy and ESPN’s The Undefeated to establish an HBCU scholarship fund. “If I can spark the brain of a few future world leaders and geniuses, I’ll die a happy man,” said the “What’s Life” rapper. After his win in the celebrity basketball game during All-Star Weekend in 2021, Kentucky rapper Jack Harlow announced that he was donating half a million dollars to two HBCUs in his home state: Simmons College and Kentucky State University. Although the events of two summers ago have accelerated efforts, it is important to remember that several hip hop artists aren’t new to this, they’re true to this. Back in 2019, rapper Nas partnered with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Hennessey for the “Hennessey Fellows” initiative. The program pledged to give $10 million to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund over the next decade to help students pay for their corporate-relevant grad courses. In efforts to create sustained success, one of the eligibility requirements is that candidates exhibit “desire to have an impact on his or her community and society at large and ‘pay it forward.’”
There was a little discussion surrounding the distribution of donations, with some expressing disdain over Howard and JSU receiving the brunt of assistance. However, we must acknowledge that a win for some is a win for all when it comes to this situation. Increased funding helps to develop better facilities and program amenities to be able to play with the “big boys.” Furthering your athletic career at an HBCU is no longer the consolation prize for not being deemed “good enough” for the bigger programs. NIL deals are bridging some of the gaps that big time boosters were able to create at the Power Five schools. Quite honestly, the alumni donors at North Carolina A&T State University, NC Central University, Howard University, and Hampton Unversity put several larger schools to shame. What they don’t have in funding, they can make up in networking. The game is changing and we’re starting to play for us.