For many people across the U.S., the summer of 2020 felt as if racial tension reached a fever pitch. The murder of George Floyd was met with anger, outrage, and a great deal of political banter among elected officials. Following the summer of 2020, there was a wave of discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the sporting/corporate world, along with a related “resurgence” of attention to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with a particular focus on athletics. But please don’t call it a comeback, ‘cause HBCUs have been here for years. It is only now that the national sports media has shone a spotlight on decades of systemic financial and racial inequalities that have led to top Black students and athletes being lured away from HBCUs to predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
Once Upon a Time…When We Were “Colored”
Ask almost any Black kid who was in middle or high school during the late ’80s / early ‘90s, and they will tell you thanks to the popularity of NBC sitcom “A Different World” (a spin-off of “The Cosby Show”), they wanted to attend an HBCU – and I was no different. But instead of the fictitious Hillman College, I envisioned myself on the campus of Norfolk State University, my mother’s alma mater, hanging out with people like Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne. The rising popularity of HBCUs during the “Cosby Show / A Different World Era” corresponded with a 24.3 percent spike in HBCU enrollment.
Significant growth in enrollment at HBCUs post-segregation is noteworthy because prior to integration, such institutions of higher learning were, for the most part, the only options Black folk had to attend college, particularly in the South. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation (on paper), there was no immediate mass exodus of Black students “opting out” of HBCUs for the hallowed halls of their nearest PWI. For them, HBCUs were still their only choice for college, so that is where they went, including some of the best athletes – and coaches – the sport world has ever seen. The list includes historical figures like Althea Gibson, Larry Doby, Doug Williams, Eddie “Coach Rob” Robinson, Sr., Earl Monroe, and Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Sr. It was a time when HBCU athletics thrived and was a great sense of pride for the Black community. But those glory days would not last.
In 1967, Nate Northington became the first African American football player at the University of Kentucky, officially desegregating the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Soon after, other SEC schools followed, signing one or two Black football players. But it is what transpired in 1970 that was a watershed moment in college athletics for both HBCUs and PWIs.
Same Script, Different Cast
Much like the past decade, in 1970 the University of Alabama had a dominant football program led by a powerful and influential coach, William “Bear” Bryant. History seems to recall the Alabama vs. University of Southern California Trojans matchup as a transformative game in the integration of college football due to the storied nature of the two programs. Though the University of Alabama admitted its first Black student in 1956 amid protests and court orders, the football team remained segregated. However, after an integrated USC team (3 Black players) humbled the Crimson Tide in a 42-21 trouncing, Alabama started its first Black player, John Mitchell, the following year. More PWIs in the South would follow suit, incrementally diverting top Black athletic (and academic) talent away from HBCUs. As the 1970s came to a close, so did a period of undisputed excellence in HBCU men’s basketball and football. Fast forward to 2020 and over 48% of NCAA FBS teams and over 52% of Power 5 men’s basketball teams were comprised of Black players. On its face, this may appear to be progress for the Black community, but dig deeper to reveal the loss it has been for HBCUs.
To those who lived, experienced, and have a deep appreciation for HBCU athletics’ “golden years”, the decline has been painful. It is akin to how we rightfully herald the iconic Jackie Robinson for breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, while also lamenting the fact that his move to the majors marked the decline of one of the most successful Black-owned enterprises of its time – the Negro Baseball Leagues. At a time when MLB dared not have a “Negro” dawn one of its uniforms, the Negro Leagues thrived with legends like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Hank Aaron.
With Robinson’s success with the Brooklyn Dodgers, other MLB teams began using the Negro Leagues as their personal draft pool. Aaron and Paige were drafted soon after Robinson, and countless others followed. The Negro Leagues held on as long as they could, but with a depleted talent pool and low ticket sales, this once booming Black enterprise ceased operations in 1960.
The Resurgence of HBCU Athletics
Save a few late-round NFL draft picks and a handful of “bracket busters” in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the past few decades of HBCU athletics have been relatively quiet with respect to national media attention. Following the summer of 2020, however, professional athletes and league administrators publicly spoke about social justice – calling out racism, demanding police reform, and protecting voting rights. WNBA and NBA stars like Renee Montgomery, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and LeBron James used their platforms to not only showcase and raise awareness about HBCUs, but also donate money to some of those institutions’ athletic departments. Even major corporations have sought to connect their brands to HBCUs, exemplified by Wells Fargo launching its “HBCU Legends Collection” of debit cards as part of their DEI strategy. But perhaps no event has brought more attention to HBCUs than the hiring of NFL Hall of Famer Deion “Prime Time” Sanders as the football coach at Jackson State University in September 2020. After being hired, “Coach Prime” brought national attention to Jackson State through countless media appearances, including Aflac® commercials alongside Alabama coach Nick Saban, the highest paid coach in college football.
In a recent appearance on the popular CBS news program 60 Minutes, Sanders unapologetically brought to the forefront the financial and structural crisis that has plagued HBCUs for decades. He has also sounded the alarm on ways in which HBCUs continue to be undervalued, figuratively and literally, with “money games” in which they are often outmatched by well-funded Power 5 programs. Probably most headline-grabbing was Jackson State signing the number one football recruit in the country, Travis Hunter in 2021. Additionally, Jackson State became just the second HBCU ever to host the popular ESPN College GameDay program in the 2022 season. With Sanders departing Jackson State after three seasons to take the head coaching job at the University of Colorado, the question now becomes “where do HBCUs go from here?”
As an HBCU alum, it would be amazing to see more top Black talent choose an HBCU over a PWI. Let’s face it, PWIs and their athletic departments have made big bank off Black bodies for decades, while HBCUs have struggled to keep their doors open. One can only hope this new interest in and resurgence of HBCUs into the national spotlight and larger conversations on racism, power, and exploitation of Black athletes in higher education is not a fleeting moment in time. Instead, this is a prime time (no pun intended) for HBCU leaders to chorale the sudden interest in HBCU athletics into a sustained commitment to restoring those institutions to a level of prominence they once held.
Author Biographical Note:
Dawn M. Norwood is an Assistant Professor and Sport Sociologist at Northern Illinois University in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Her research interests include strategies for overcoming constraints to swimming for African American women, social justice and activism through sport, and HBCU athletics. She is a proud alum of Grambling State University and former Assistant Professor at Florida A&M University. Follow her on LinkedIn or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.