Ohio State University, Alabama, Gonzaga — college sports royalty we know and love or despise. But what if we told you the recent groundswell of anti-racist activism that’s swept across America over the past year is helping reshape the world of college sports too?
Embracing what observers call heightened “racial consciousness,” elite Black athletes are today being drawn to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It’s a trend that could reshape the college sports universe. “I describe this often in class as the ‘Trayvon Martin generation,’” says Derrick White, an African American studies professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of Blood, Sweat, and Tears about the history of Black college football.
Today, we serve up the lowdown on the HBCU sports programs to watch, highlight the stars set to shine and dive into how the reckoning on America’s streets is changing college sports.
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One of the biggest slights against HBCUs is that they lack the staff size, budget and reputation to succeed at the highest level of collegiate athletics. North Carolina A&T State University’s track and field squad hasn’t been listening. Last month, the university’s Cambrea Sturgis dominated the women’s races at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship. She won the 100-meter sprint with a wind-aided 10.74 seconds, the fastest time in NCAA history. Even more impressive, she also took first place in the 200-meter sprint. North Carolina A&T’s men’s team shocked all rivals by finishing third at the championship. “We were told we couldn’t win a national championship at an HBCU,” said Duane Ross, the director of track and field at North Carolina A&T. “We were told that it was impossible, that we don’t have the resources.” Fat chance.
2. Is Jackson State Football for Real?
With the Tigers going 4-3 and finishing above .500 for the first time since 2013 in last spring’s shortened season, Jackson State football is on the up. The on-the-field product looks much improved this year in NFL legend Deion Sanders’ first term as head coach. More improvements could be on the way: With Sanders already proving he can recruit with the best — nabbing five four-star recruits in the class of 2021 — a haul unheard of at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level and among HBCUs. The class includes Sanders’ son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, and top-100 recruit Quaydarius Davis, the No. 8 overall wide receiver in the country per Rivals. Notably, Davis had been previously linked to programs at USC and Kansas. Could Sanders prove that HBCUs can once again become a dominant force in the college football world, no matter the level? Stay tuned.
3. Howard on the Rise
Despite a 4-29 season in 2019-20, the Howard University’s men’s basketball program was able to acquire the highest rated prospect to ever sign with an HBCU out of the 2021 high school recruiting class. At nearly 7 feet, five-star recruit Makur Maker excels at every aspect of the game. Unfortunately, two games into the 2020-21 season, Maker suffered a groin injury just before Howard decided to cancel the remainder of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Still, Howard has proven it’s capable of landing the biggest prospect in modern HBCU athletics, which could certainly bode well for the program going forward.
When the FCS moved its 2020-21 football season to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mississippi’s Alcorn State University opted out of the competition and thus the Braves forfeited all of their games. In the two prior seasons, Alcorn State won the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Championship, beating two non-HBCUs, and has made it to the conference championship game every year since 2014. Now, despite not playing for almost two years, Alcorn State is already receiving preseason buzz. “Some of these young guys that haven’t necessarily seen the field yet are over here behind closed doors making big gains, big jumps and are going to be good contributors,” Jason Phillips, an offensive assistant coach at Alcorn State, tells OZY. Returning quarterback Felix Harper was the 2019 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year, and Alcorn State boasts a host of offensive weapons, including productive Southeastern Conference transfers.
next stop, stardom
1. Se'Quoia Allmond — Women’s Basketball
For the most part, the WNBA has seen few players emerge from HBCUs. Women’s college basketball is typically dominated by a set of powerhouses: UConn, Tennessee, Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina. Yet Se’Quoia Allmond is a trailblazer in women’s basketball: The four-star talent signed with Jackson State in late 2020 over the University of Kansas and the University of Kentucky. She is the first top-100 recruit to commit to an HBCU since ESPN began ranking women’s basketball prospects. “I always wanted to do something different and be my own person,” she says. “I like to start trends. And it might not be today or tomorrow, or even this year, but eventually, people are going to start catching on and moving to HBCUs.”
2. Aqeel Glass — Football
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama A&M University’s football team played just four games this spring. That didn’t stop quarterback Aqeel Glass from putting up monster numbers, garnering 2021 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and leading his team to an undefeated record. The St. Louis native threw for 1,355 yards and 16 touchdowns on just four interceptions. At 6 foot 5 and 215 pounds, Glass is the size of a prototypical NFL quarterback and is considered a sleeper ahead of the 2022 draft. Beyond the gridiron, he’s known to speak up on issues of race. “I’m biracial – my mom’s white, my dad’s Black – so without social justice, without all the influential people in civil rights, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Glass told the Alabama News Center.
3. Mikey Williams — Men’s Basketball
Though still uncommitted, the No. 2 overall men’s basketball prospect in the high school class of 2023 has said on several occasions he’s seriously considering HBCU programs. Half of the 10 colleges he previously stated he was considering were HBCUs, including North Carolina Central, Tennessee State and Alabama State universities. He’s opened his recruitment up a bit more, but his father recently said Williams is leaning toward an HBCU. If that plays out, the move would be monumental. Actions, of course, speak louder than words: Other top recruits have recently championed HBCUs only to go down a more traditional path.
4. Randolph Ross — Track
North Carolina A&T had a built-in advantage in recruiting its star athlete when he signed in 2019. North Carolina A&T’s director of track & field, Duane Ross, is Randolph’s father. That’s why it was such a magical moment when the younger Ross qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 400-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials on June 20. “That victory lap and that smile just brought me to tears,” Duane Ross told Runner’s World. “When he came up and gave me a hug, he said, ‘Happy Father’s Day.’” Duane himself competed in the Olympics 17 years ago in Athens.
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Howard is hoping that Maker’s signing will usher in a new trend, but the prominent Washington, D.C., school has much to sell beyond sports: Howard boasts a constellation of famous alumni: Vice President Kamala Harris, author Toni Morrison and rapper Diddy — a legacy Maker cited in his decision-making. The list of Howard movers and shakers is extensive, ranging from the late civil rights attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to actor Chadwick Boseman to singer Roberta Flack. Recently, Howard has added big-name faculty members such as author Ta-Nehisi Coates and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who turned down tenure at the University of North Carolina to come to Howard.
2. Now Let’s Talk Money
To further bolster its recruiting efforts going forward, Jackson State is at the forefront of connecting its players with name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities that can lead to multimillion-dollar endorsement deals for its sports stars. Helped by television personality and former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, a number of Jackson State football players have signed sponsorship deals with WorkForce Software. New Jackson State defensive end Antwan Owens was the first college athlete to officially sign an NCAA-sanctioned endorsement deal on July 1. Florida A&M University is also set up well to assist its athletes with the new NIL landscape, in which players are now able to make money as of July 1. The institution already agreed to a five-year deal with the content platform INFLCR, which will assist student athletes with growing and leveraging their brands.
Atlanta-based Morehouse College is one of the most prestigious HBCUs in the country. Like Howard, it boasts an array of star alumni: film director Spike Lee, actor Samuel L. Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. Its location in the heart of the city presents athletes with unique opportunities. Quarterback Jalen Chatman last month transferred from Portland State University to Morehouse, drawn by its academic chops but also by the business opportunities the bustling metropolis can offer. “The value of a Morehouse degree holds a lot of prestige and they have a great business program,” Chatman told HBCU Gameday. “Atlanta is a great, familiar location and an amazing place to help grow my clothing brand business, Ju$t Ca$h Clothing.”
Prairie View A&M’s basketball program in Texas has made headlines for all the right reasons this year. But success depends on support from beyond the court as much as on it. Ruth Simmons, a former Brown University president and now Prairie View’s boss, regularly attends games. “She’s been very, very supportive and comes to games,” Prairie View A&M Head Coach Byron Smith tells OZY. “She has an open door policy. We've also given her a reason to be excited because we have one of the best mid-major programs in the country. I think we’ve given her reason to feel good about supporting our program.”
enough done? no chance
1. A Dearth of Black Head Coaches
Even in predominantly Black sports, head coaching jobs are hard to come by for African Americans. In 2020, only 14 of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches were Black. That’s even as more than 50% of players were African American. Today, two of the top college athletics leagues, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 Conference, do not have a single Black head coach among their 24 combined members. What’s more, it’s rare for an HBCU head coach to get hired for the same position at the FBS level, even if they are a coach who has dominated the FCS level for years. Since the 1970s, only a handful have been offered the chance to make such a leap. “It’s hard to move up the coaching ranks for a number of reasons because there’s very little evidence that you can be a head coach at an HBCU and then be on the hot list for the next big job,” White of the University of Kentucky said.
2. Scouting Opportunities are Vital
Due to the pandemic, HBCUs (like a majority of FCS programs) were afforded few scouting opportunities in each of the past two springs. This dramatically decreased the professional football opportunities for HBCU athletes: Just one HBCU player was selected in the last two NFL drafts, in sharp contrast to the two years prior, when seven made it to the big time. For example, Alcorn State’s Jason Phillips coached wide receiver Chris Blair in the fall of 2019. That season, Blair finished sixth in the nation in yards per reception (21.2), but without a pro day and scout interviews to display and publicize his talents, he wasn’t able to sign with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers until January. “I don’t know if he’s gonna be on the (Packers’) 53-man roster, but he’ll be a part of that organization just because he will work his tail off to make sure he is,” Phillips said.
3. Unjust NCAA Penalties
All athletic programs under NCAA jurisdiction must meet a 930 Academic Progress Rate, which in lay terms is intended to roughly equate to a 50% college graduation rate. Institutions falling below this threshold are subject to postseason infractions such as a bowl game ban, which can result in major knock-on effects: Missing the postseason impacts recruiting, team morale, and depending on the sport, even hinders revenue and academic performance. Records show it’s predominantly Black institutions that are being penalized. Despite making up 7% of all Division I schools, HBCUs account for 72% of all Academic Progress Rate postseason infractions. Some of the onus is on the schools themselves, but that’s neglecting the fact that HBCUs are often homes for first-generation college students from low-income areas who have access to fewer academic resources. “HBCUs are already starting at lower graduation success rates, lower academic progress rates,” attorney Beth Fegan told NPR, “and yet they’re being held to the same benchmarks as predominantly white institutions who don’t have the mission [HBCUs do]. The NCAA should be supporting the mission of HBCUs, not penalizing them for it.”