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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

Deion Sanders Was Never the Savior of HBCUs, nor Should He Have Ever Been Expected to Save Them

HBCU fans should be demanding greater investment in HBCUs instead of rebuking Sanders

Photo Courtesy of April Visuals | Shutterstock

The inevitable finally occurred in Black college sports. Deion Sanders, the head coach for Jackson State University, decided to take his coaching talents to the University of Colorado in a Power Five football conference. No one should be surprised that this occurred, but public opinions are deeply divided.

Some HBCU fans are grateful for Sanders's work for the Jackson State program and wish him well at the University of Colorado. Others are angry that Sanders did not stay long enough to meet their expectations. Carron J. Phillips, a senior writer for Deadspin, illuminates the feelings of those livid with Sanders.

Even though many HBCU fans are upset with Sanders, they must realize that he did not come to Jackson State University to save HBCU football, nor was he ever meant to be their savior. Sanders brought greater attention to HBCU sports, but the truth is that he was really selling himself the entire time.

In fact, Sanders sold himself so well that most fans could not recognize that he was selling himself because they were probably blinded by the increased attention that HBCU sports were getting.

Coaches at every school on every level sell themselves, however. Sanders just did it better than every other coach. Sanders' mistake, though, was not tempering the expectations of the most fervent HBCU fans. Sanders set the bar extremely high in his initial statements after accepting the job at Jackson State University.

This program is going to assist every other program. If you need a dog to help you recruit, you better believe I’m here for you. We’re going to win. We’re going to look good while we win. We’re going to have a good time while we win, with the Sonic Boom. This is a marriage made in heaven. Do you believe?

Later, Sanders went on 60 Minutes and gave an interview, claiming that God summoned him to Jackson State University. “I truly believe with all my heart and soul that God called me collect (laugh), and I had to accept the charges,” said Sanders.

No wonder some have considered Sanders a “false prophet” as he incorporated his faith and his brand into HBCU sports. He got HBCU fans’ hopes up and then left, as many coaches have done before.

He certainly didn’t temper expectations by suggesting he was the face of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) after a victory against Alabama A&M University.

Some fans claim that Sanders used the SWAC to get a job at a Power 5 School. But fans must be careful with this claim. Did Sanders leverage the SWAC to get a better job? Did he dupe the SWAC?

How is Sanders leaving Jackson State any different than what any other person would do at their place of employment? Sanders believes that he has a better opportunity at the University of Colorado. Would you turn down an opportunity to grow your career profile and embark upon greater challenges while getting more money? Aren’t we all looking for our next opportunity?

Some of the anger misplaced at Sanders should be placed elsewhere. Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, where segregation was ruled illegal, elite athletes only attended HBCUs. After desegregation, the best Black athletes integrated into predominately white institutions (PWIs) because they were better funded and offered a better chance of winning an NCAA championship. Due to the departure of elite Black athletes, HBCU sports departments suffered financial setbacks and have never recovered.

Sanders, however, was on the verge of doing something huge at an HBCU. He had begun to recruit elite athletes away from PWIs, and then here comes the University of Colorado taking away Jackson State University’s head coach and likely many of the elite athletes that Sanders recruited. Does this not parallel the great HBCU setback incurred by desegregation? Is this not another example of PWIs benefiting at the expense of HBCUs?

Yet Sanders is not responsible for the past setbacks that HBCUs have experienced, and he shouldn’t be criticized for not staying around to fix them. These setbacks are bigger than what Sanders alone can address. Instead, the anger must be placed on state legislatures that have historically underfunded HBCUs. In the February/March 2002 issue of Forbes magazine, Forbes published an article about how America has cheated HBCUs. Per the article,

Compared to their predominantly white counterparts, the nation’s Black land-grant universities have been underfunded by at least $12.8 billion over the last three decades. Many are in dire financial straits—and living under a cloud of violence.

Furthermore, Black alumni aren’t supporting HBCUs financially like alumni of PWIs support their schools. The giving rate at Jackson State is reportedly only 13% and U.S. News reported the average giving rate at HBCUs was only 11.2%. The Jackson State University and HBCU alumni giving rate is significantly less than the overall alumni giving rate of 23% for all American universities.

But what if state legislatures properly funded HBCUs and alumni increased their donations to their alma maters? HBCUs could construct better facilities, make better team travel arrangements, and compete for better coaches. This could lead to greater exposure for HBCUs sports and, ultimately, HBCU academics.

Other sports fans believe that the University of Colorado is a bad head coaching opportunity and that Sanders could have had better offers if he had stayed at Jackson State University for a while longer. Stephen A. Smith and Paul Finebaum discussed this on First Take. Both agree that Deion shouldn’t take the job.

The University of Colorado plays its games on the West Coast, limiting the program's exposure. The University of Colorado is uncertain which football conference it will reside in. Unlike the South, where Sanders will be leaving, the State of Colorado is also not known for producing local college football prospects.

Further, per U.S. Census data, Boulder County, home of the University of Colorado, is just 1.2% Black or African American, and the student body is less than 2% Black. So recruiting out-of-state talent will be more challenging for Sanders.

But one should not criticize Sanders for pursuing what he perceives to be a better opportunity. No one expected Sanders to have the success that he had at Jackson State University, so it would be premature to predict his opportunity at the University of Colorado will be unsuccessful.

Moreover, Sanders shouldn’t be expected to be the savior of HBCU sports. Many fans wish he would accept that responsibility, but it is his choice not to accept it. His priority is to make decisions that impact himself and his family first before considering his impact on HBCUs.

Ultimately, Sanders is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If his coaching opportunity at the University of Colorado is unsuccessful, he can always return to an HBCU or get a job working in television. HBCU fans should be grateful that Sanders left HBCU sports with a greater profile than he was handed. It is now up to HBCUs, alumni, and fans to build upon Sanders’ great work.

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