HBCU football: Changing the “narrative” about HBCU athletics

MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 20: Head Coach Deion Sanders talk with his quarterback Jalon Jones #4 of the Jackson State Tigers during a time out during the game against the Alabama State Hornets at New ASU Stadium on March 20, 2021 in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama State Hornets defeated the Jackson State Tigers 35 to 28. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 20: Head Coach Deion Sanders talk with his quarterback Jalon Jones #4 of the Jackson State Tigers during a time out during the game against the Alabama State Hornets at New ASU Stadium on March 20, 2021 in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama State Hornets defeated the Jackson State Tigers 35 to 28. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

Before black football players were allowed to play at historically white institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities were the only schools where black players would have the opportunity to play college football.

Though there were some exceptions (Jackie Robinson played at UCLA in the 30s), HBCUs is where the vast majority of black high school football players were recruited and played. After desegregation, many black players began to play for historically white institutions.

As football conferences grew and major universities made more money from football, HBCUs could not keep up with recruiting and the facilities many major universities have. It might not be for the reasons you think.

Many HBCUs are small in contrast to their larger in-state counterparts. For example, North Carolina A&T is the only HBCU with an annual enrollment of over 10,000 undergraduate students. The University of North Carolina, the state’s largest public university has an undergraduate enrollment of over 19,000.

What is the narrative? 

This has led to a narrative that HBCUs are schools black kids go to when they cannot get into the “big schools” and where athletes go if they are not good enough to compete at the Power Five level.

In short, the narrative is HBCUs are inferior to their historically white, in-state counterparts. In context, I am saying inferior as less than. The truth is HBCUs are not less than, they are simply smaller.

If HBCUs are underfunded, it is because states have been allowed to shrink on their obligation to fund their public HBCUs properly. The state of Maryland just settled an over half-billion dollar lawsuit with its HBCUs over underfunding.

Tennessee could face the same settlement with Tennesse State. It has been found that the state of Tennessee has underfunded TSU for 50 years and could owe the school up to 500 million dollars.

What it means for football.

No matter how the perception of HBCU football has come about, it is historically inaccurate and incorrect. HBCUs traditionally have not had the opportunity to demonstrate its on-field tradition and quality.

Before this spring, HBCU football was often relegated to a tape-delay game on ESPNU or ESPNEWS late at night. The only time a national audience sees live HBCU football is the Bayou Classic and the Celebration Bowl.

Enter Deion Sanders.

From Sanders to George

Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders had been coaching since 2012 and made it no secret a desire to coach at the collegiate level after coaching high school football in Florida and Texas. Sanders believes he can create a pipeline from Jackson, Mississippi to the NFL.

Sanders has famously said that God called him to Jackson, Mississippi. You might not place your faith where Sanders does but there is little doubt as to his impact on spring football. For better or worse, Sanders’ influenced bumped several HBCU games this season to ESPN.

In his brief time at JSU, Sanders has helped raise the profile and the fundraising at Jackson State, an HBCU that has good alumni donors.

George taking Tennessee State is a different story. George never had any designs on coaching. However, George sees this as an opportunity to do something bigger than himself. The NFL Hall of Famer has donated to TSU in the past but being the face of the football program raises its profile.

This was the point of Jemele Hill’s article from The Atlantic two years ago in which she discussed why black athletes should attend HBCUs. George and Sanders are using their “celebrity” to raise the profile of and change the incorrect perception of HBCU football.

What they and Morgan State head coach, Michigan legend Tyrone Wheatley are doing is using their status to help build institutions that have produced more black professionals than any other institutions of higher learning in this country.

That is one narrative of this culture shift. Since integration, college football has, in many ways, continued perpetuating the system of “black labor, white wealth” in this country. A shift by high school athletes could disrupt this paradigm.

There has been a smattering of high-profile athletes recently choosing HBCUs as well.

A chance trip to Tallahassee

The Florida A&M Rattlers had little chance of signing High School All-American Kayvon Thibodeaux when they offered him out of high school in 2018; what FAMU did not expect was that he’d actually visit.

The impact of Thibodeaux’s visit resulted in an uptick in recruiting and enrollment for Florida A&M. More than that, that simple visit demonstrated that HBCUs are not second-rate or second-class.

Ultimately, Thibodeaux signed with Oregon, but the impact of his visit “across the tracks” cannot be understated.

In the era of athletes reclaiming their space as activists, high school students have clung to the idea of being more than an athlete. Some high school athletes have taken it upon themselves to “change the narrative.”

Sons of celebrities

In March, Skyler Jordan, son of 90s R&B legend Montell Jordan signed with Alcorn State. Both of Deion Sanders’ sons, Shedeur and Shilo followed their father to Jackson State (Shiloh transferred from South Carolina).

On the surface, it looks like sons just following their dad. However, Shilo transferred from an SEC school to join JSU and Shedeur spurned the likes of Arizona State and Alabama to follow his father. This is also happening in basketball as well.

Shaqir O’Neal and Hercy Miller, sons of Shaquille O’Neal and Percy “Master P” Miller want to “change the narrative” of HBCU schools as well. Here is what they said about signing with HBCUs.

“I just wanted to change the narrative of culture and do something new. A lot of people are going to follow me,” O’Neal said during an interview with Overtime.

Miller echoed the same sentiment.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been taught to be a leader and to not follow the crowd. I want to make a change. I want to make a difference,” Miller told ESPN. “I know with me, I can change the narrative.

People think that you just need to go to a big school to become a pro or just to be great and that’s not true. A lot of great people came out of HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] and mid-majors; just they don’t have the same spotlight.

So, with me, I just wanted to make a change. I wanted to be different.”

If you are good, you get drafted

Not only is the notion that you need an elite school to get drafted high is not only ridiculous, but it is also historically inaccurate. Before white institutions recruited black players, HBCUs were the pipeline for the NFL and NBA.

The first black number one overall draft pick in professional football (Buck Buchanan) came from Grambling University. More recently, the Houston Texans selected Tytus Howard (Alabama A&M) in the first round in 2019 and the Indianapolis Colts took Darius Leonard (South Carolina State) in the second round in 2018.

The same is true in the NBA. Memphis Grizzles’ guard Temetrius “Ja” Morant was the second pick in the draft in 2019 out of Murray State. Damian Lillard was the sixth pick in the draft out of Weber State. Suffice it to say if you are talented; you get drafted high, no matter where you play.

A rising tide floats all boats

For the sons of one of the most recognizable athletes in the last thirty years and one of the most successful media moguls of the 1990s, both Shaqir O’Neal and Hercy Miller are paving their own road.

The younger O’Neal knows that he will get noticed and the attention he receives means attention for Texas Southern. Miller, a higher-rated recruit than O’Neal, has a similar view but also wants to carve his own path.

Both young men want to prove that HBCUs can prepare you for the NBA just as well as any other school. Sanders wants to rebuild the pipeline from HBCUs to the NFL.

Next. Way-too-early preseason Top 25 projections for 2021. dark