You do not have to be a Jackson State fan, student, or alumni, to appreciate what Deion Sanders is doing as head coach of the Tigers football program. The long-term result may not benefit just one school, but all HBCUs. There are people who, by way of their decisions and actions, stand out for their willingness to go against the status quo. Often, a catalyst for change may initially stand alone, but eventually the masses will catch up to them.
Sanders played 14 years in the NFL and his accomplishments on the field resulted in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His accomplishments this season as a head coach may revolutionize college sports recruiting by offsetting the competitive advantages white power conferences have over HBCU programs. Before integration, HBCUs were athletic powerhouses. With college athletics now a billion-dollar industry, the predominately white institutions are monopolizing recruitment of the top Black football and basketball prospects.
Schools from the power 5 conferences have the competitive edge with money, facilities and television deals, a point highlighted by Kayvon Thibodeaux’s decision to attend the University of Oregon. Thibodeaux was the High School Football Defensive Player of the Year as well as the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2019. The Los Angeles native made history by being the first No. 1 high school prospect to have an “unofficial visit” to a HBCU. He visited the campus of Florida A&M University during a recruiting visit to neighboring Florida State. The visit was a major shock considering FAMU, who was coming off a 3-8 season, was not on his top-5 list of schools. The list included Florida State, USC, Alabama, Florida, and Oregon. It was Thibodeaux’s first time ever being on any HBCU campus.
“I loved it [FAMU]. I can honestly say it was one of the best trips ever. I would advise every local athlete in Tallahassee, up and down the East Coast, the West Coast, all over America, to check out an HBCU during their process. The culture is amazing. You’ll honestly have a real-life experience. I was so happy I was able to come,” said Thibodeaux.
But visiting an HBCU is one thing; choosing an HBCU is another. When the decision was made, Thibodeaux stuck with a power five school by going to Oregon. While Thibodeaux did not choose an HBCU, he saw something special at FAMU. He at least made the step to visit an HBCU. His visit was a catalyst for change where it planted the idea for future recruits such as Travis Hunter to seriously consider what HBCUs can offer in their entirety.
Hunter, from Suwanee, GA, is the nation’s No. 1 player overall in the 2022 class. He originally committed to Florida State but switched to play for Sanders at Jackson State. The decision to sign with Jackson State is historic. Never has a No. 1 prospect during the recruiting ranking era elected to play for an HBCU. This is the day some hoped would never come. The reactions to the announcement would have been far different had Hunter picked Alabama rather than Jackson State. And while Deion Sanders is a Florida State alum, FSU fans burned his football jersey in anger. It may have taken someone of Sanders’ status and charisma to make the recruiting pitch and then pull it off. Now that the ground has been broken, how would the college economic landscape change if other HBCU coaches have similar success?
A player of Hunter’s caliber committing to Jackson State may prove that HBCUs can begin to close the competitive gap by highlighting the cultural advantages HBCUs can offer to young men and women athletes. The cultural environment and experiences from HBCUs are unique and difficult for predominately white institutions to match.
If a football player has the talent, the NFL will find them regardless of what college they attend. Jackson State has four Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees, matching the same number from Florida State and Georgia. “Jerry Rice, Doug Williams and of course the legend, JSU’s own Walter Payton. Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich history in football,” Hunter wrote. “I want to be a part of that history, and more. I want to be a part of that future. I am making this decision so I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more; an exciting college experience, a vital community and a life-changing place to play football.”
If Kayvon Thibodeax opened the door, then Travis Hunter walked through it. Hunter may stand alone by being the first player. Fortunately, all it takes is just one to break through and then the flow begins. In time others will soon follow. With the return of top tier players will come the respect, recognition, and the dollars HBCUs rightfully deserve.
David W. Marshall is founder of the faith-based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body, and author of the book “God Bless Our Divided America”. He can be reached at www.davidwmarshallauthor.com.