Jackson State University football coach “Neon” Deion Sanders, an NFL first-ballot Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest cornerback to play the game, shocked the college football world Wednesday by successfully recruiting Travis Hunter, a high school cornerback whom Rivals.com considers the top high school football player in the nation, to a Black college program. It was such unexpected news that football scribe Bruce Feldman called it “the biggest signing day stunner in my 20-plus years of covering this stuff.”
Sanders recruited Hunter away from Sanders’ alma mater, Florida State University. For the Seminoles to lose the country’s top recruit to one of their own had to hurt.
In this era, the country’s top high school athlete signing with a Black college simply doesn’t happen.
It’s not an overstatement to call the day's events “cinematic.” In this era, the country’s top high school athlete signing with a Black college simply doesn’t happen. Over the years, there were rumors of Black athletes considering joining a team at one of the country’s historically Black colleges or universities, but Hunter is actually taking the step.
“This is historic,” Derrick E. White, a professor of history and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, said in an email, both “post-integration and in the modern era of recruiting rankings. It signals that Deion has the personality and cachet with recruits. But it also fits with broader data that HBCUs’ enrollments have increased. The question remains whether other HBCU football programs can replicate JSU’s success. Regardless, this is a big moment for HBCU Football.”
This is not the first time in Sanders’ two seasons in Jackson, Mississippi, that he has convinced players to forgo a Power Five conference and join his Tigers squad. Last year his son Shedeur Sanders, a sought-after quarterback, joined his father’s team, and De’Jahn Warren, 2020’s highest-rated cornerback, decided he wouldn’t play at the University of Georgia but at Jackson State. According to The Undefeated, Sanders also signed eight players who transferred out of Power Five schools and his son Shilo Sanders.
But Sanders is more than a good recruiter. He can clearly coach. The Tigers went 11-1 this season, won the Southwestern Athletic Conference and will play South Carolina State University, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions, in the Celebration Bowl on Saturday in Atlanta.
In 2019 when Jemele Hill, a Black columnist for The Atlantic, penned “It's Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges,” she was pilloried and derided as a “segregationist.” That was an ironic label given that HBCUs exist because white colleges practiced segregation. But in calling for Black athletes to enroll at HBCUs, Hill argued for a community solidarity that could help rebuild HBCUs, so many of which are in financial straits.
When Jemele Hill, a columnist for The Atlantic, penned “It's Time for Black Athletes to Leave White Colleges,” she was pilloried as a “segregationist.”
Referring to the country’s most talented Black high school athletes, she wrote, “They attract money and attention to the predominantly white universities that showcase them, while HBCUs struggle. What would happen if they collectively decided to go to black schools?” She noted, “The entire endowment of North Carolina A&T is worth barely as much as Clemson’s football campus.” Let us now imagine the reverse: fat football endowments at HBCUs and Clemson University head coach Dabo Swinney getting his $10 million salary snipped.
Hunter choosing Jackson State may prompt many to remember an era — lasting into the 1970s — when predominately white colleges were wary of recruiting Black talent. The best Black players went to HBCUs. Super Bowl-winning running back Walter Payton played at Jackson State, and Super Bowl MVPs Jerry Rice and Doug Williams played at Mississippi Valley State University and Grambling State University, respectively.
As ugly as it was that white colleges limited the number of Black football players they recruited, that racism greatly benefited HBCU sports and made their programs a focus of attraction — not to mention revenue — on the college football circuit. Those same Black collegiate athletics programs have suffered during the last 30 years as white schools have gone scorched-earth in their search for Black athletic excellence.
While Hunter’s rejection of Florida State for Jackson State might make many nostalgic for HBCUs’ glorious football pasts, it’s important to note that his move is about him: his present and his future. In the short term, Hunter dramatically raises his profile with a trailblazing move. Companies already scouring the landscape looking to pay to use the name, image and likeness of college athletes will find their way to Hunter’s door. In the long term, his college games will generate weekly attention, further increasing his brand power.
In Sanders, he not only has a master cornerback to teach him every trick; he has a coach who will look to utilize him on offense and special teams. “Prime Time,” to use another of Sanders’ nicknames, will put Hunter in positions to shine, all the better for his NFL prospects. Could Florida State make such assurances? They certainly couldn’t offer the kind of spotlight Neon Deion brings.
Hunter’s decision could be a one-off or a harbinger of more to come, thereby transforming Hill’s column from plea to prophesy. What is certain is that we are living at an inflection point where Black politics — or the politics of anti-racism — and sports have not been so intertwined since the 1970s. That was the era Harry Edwards called “the revolt of the Black athlete.”
If more top-tier athletes start flowing to HBCUs, it will mark a gigantic transfer of wealth from predominantly white institutions.
Fifty years ago, college sports were a sideline industry, and it was assumed Black athletes would go to HBCUs. Now, collegiate athletics is a multibillion-dollar beast where schools with minuscule Black student bodies field teams overwhelmingly stacked with Black talent. New laws allowing college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image or likeness can do exactly what their supporters promised: level the playing field between the Alabamas and Georgias and Jackson States.
If more top-tier athletes start flowing to HBCUs, it will mark a gigantic transfer of wealth from the predominantly white institutions that depend on football as an economic tentpole for their entire operation. In other words, there are a lot of powerful people who will fight this. As for now, the spotlight will be on Hunter. If he can take care of business on and especially off the field, more top-flight Black talent will follow. If anyone can help him manage the spotlight, it’s the coach deservedly named Prime Time.