Given HBCUs' incredible NFL track record, Travis Hunter can be more than just an NIL trailblazer
On Tuesday, the Black College Football Hall of Fame announced its Class of 2022 inductees. Established in 2009, the Hall recognizes the great players who have come from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
This year's player class is stellar: John "Big Train" Moody was a star at Morris Brown in the first half of the 20th century; receiver Sammy White was a two-time NFL Pro Bowler and 1976 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Vikings; receiver Donald Driver, a three-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl winner with the Packers; offensive lineman Nate Newton, a two-time All-Pro, three-time Super Bowl champion and six-time Pro Bowler with Dallas; and Patriots tight end Ben Coates, a member of 1990s All-Decade team, three-time All-Pro, and five-time Pro Bowler who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000, his final season.
It served as another reminder of the talent HBCU programs have produced.
Last month, when Georgia high schooler Travis Hunter changed his mind and ended up choosing Jackson State over Florida State, and there was predictably an uproar, even beyond Seminoles fans who were spurned by the top-rated prep player in the country.
One sports talking head called Hunter's choice "an obvious mistake," and went on to defend himself by just putting down HBCUs.
First and foremost, Hunter's decision is his own. We can speculate how much NIL money may have played a role, but the young man offered his reasons in an Instagram post, saying in part, "Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich history in football. I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future."
Howard University in Washington D.C. is currently the most high-profile HBCU, in part because it's where Vice President Kamala Harris went for undergrad and also, unfortunately, for a student protest in the fall spurred by housing issues.
Howard is excellent when it comes to academics and has produced some of the great leaders and artists in our history, but it doesn't hold a candle to other HBCUs when it comes to football.
Currently there are 34 Pro Football Hall of Famers who played at an HBCU, many of them because they weren't allowed to play at other schools due of segregation.
Anyone that knows their NFL history knows that Jackson State has as many Hall of Famers (four) as Georgia and Florida State, and more than Tennessee (three) and Florida (two).
No less a running back than Walter Payton, so revered that the NFL has named its highest character honor after him, was a Jackson State Tiger. Defensive back Lem Barney, linebacker Robert Brazile and right tackle Jackie Slater were also Tigers.
And JSU isn't the only Black school with four Hall of Famers — Grambling State, Morgan State and South Carolina State do too.
Yes, they all played years ago, and while Southern University's Harold Carmichael and South Carolina State's Donnie Shell were both in the Class of 2020, they retired in 1984 and 1987 respectively. The most recent HBCU players to have Hall of Fame careers were another Southern Jaguar, Aeneas Williams, and Texas Southern's Michael Strahan, both enshrined in 2014.
Things began to change in college football once schools now called PWIs, or predominantly white institutions, in the former Confederate states saw the writing on the wall and realized they wouldn't be winning much more until they integrated their teams. Alabama's Bear Bryant was still fielding an all-white team in 1970 when he invited an integrated Southern California squad to Birmingham and got rolled, 42-21.
It was only then that the state's staunchly segregationist governor, George Wallace, and the school's board of trustees relented and allowed Black players to play for the Crimson Tide. Apparently they were in support of the free labor moving from the cotton and tobacco fields to the football fields, as long as it brought their school glory.
It's true that over the last 20 or so years the athletics facilities at HBCUs have paled in comparison to PWIs, especially at Power Five schools. Once money started pouring in from broadcast deals and vanity bowl games and deep-pocketed alums, Power Five schools started building shinier weight rooms and fancier locker rooms and plusher meeting rooms, all with the goal of luring the best athletes to their teams.
As athletics departments at Division I schools across the country saw budgets soar, HBCUs were doing their best just to keep the lights on in the academic buildings as federal funding for the schools dropped drastically — about 42% from 2003 to 2015 — and state monies dried up as well.
Building a state-of-the-art weight room is hard to justify when you're struggling to provide vital day-to-day accommodations for students.
But we're starting to see the tide turn. Deion Sanders being at Jackson State didn't just land Hunter, Sanders' presence has also brought buzz to Black college football in general. The Tigers were 11-1 this season before being upset by South Carolina State in the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 18, a game with a noon kickoff that drew 2.6 million viewers, which was more than that week's most-watched NBA game.
Hue Jackson was just named head coach at legendary Grambling, having spent last year as offensive coordinator at Tennessee State, where Eddie George is head coach. Those names bring attention.
Attention brings television cameras and televised games. Attention brings sponsors and financial support from alums. For better or worse, that attention and money can help not just the football teams and athletics programs but the schools in general.
It's been a while since an HBCU player was drafted into the NFL, but if Hunter has started a trend, we may see it happening more. We can only hope there's some Hall of Famers that follow too.