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Here's the problem with Deion Sanders acting like a hero for HBCU athletes

Not for nothing, but why should anyone care about Deion Sanders' opinion when it comes to how many HBCU players were chosen in this year's NFL Draft?

It's been clear for a very long time that Sanders' first — and perhaps only — goal is getting attention for himself, so maybe it's not just the NFL that should feel ashamed, as he believes it should, for having only one HBCU player — Jackson State's Isaiah Bolden — selected in the seven rounds of last weekend's draft.

Maybe I should feel a little shame that I'm providing some of the attention he so clearly seeks at all times.

But Sanders left the HBCU football team he was coaching for the first Power Five job that was offered to him, with a perennially basement-dwelling Colorado program that promised him a contract at a salary its athletic director admitted it didn't even have to offer at the time of his signing. Given that, his opinion on anything HBCU related is a lot like the ex who didn't want to stick it out through the tough times having an opinion on your new significant other.

It's no longer your business, sir. You made your choice.

There's a lot of nuance when it comes to HBCUs and their athletics programs, nuance that many people don't care to learn. First and foremost, when predominantly white institutions (PWIs) in the South that were staunchly segregated realized that ending their ban on Black student athletes and integrating teams would lead to more wins, it led to a massive talent drain from historically Black schools.

PWIs could offer more enticements: better facilities, usually bigger stadiums, and over time, far more television exposure. By their very nature, borne of the particular American stew of racism and capitalism that means Black people have by and large been left out of the generational wealth equation, PWIs have more deep-pocketed alums and donors, which leads to larger endowments, which means more spending. Add in the massive broadcasting deals mega-conferences are signing, with some of the money headed to member schools, and some athletics departments are flush with cash.

But even public PWIs have more money. Look no further than Tennessee, where both the University of Tennessee and Tennessee State, an HBCU, are land-grant colleges and under the Second Morrill Act of 1890 were supposed to receive federal money and have that money matched by state funding. And yet for decades, the state of Tennessee didn't just budget 75% of funds for UT and only 25% for TSU, it intentionally didn't give Tennessee State all of the reduced sum it was supposed to receive. A 2021 state audit found TSU was owed over $500 million in federally mandated funds. The school has been rubbing nickels together just to keep basic campus infrastructure intact. Building a state-of-the-art facility solely for football has been a pipe dream for years, though current head coach Eddie George is hoping that can change with the state beginning to repay what it owes the school.

Colorado head coach Deion Sanders criticized the NFL after only one HBCU player was drafted this past weekend. Maybe Sanders should look in the mirror. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Colorado head coach Deion Sanders criticized the NFL after only one HBCU player was drafted this past weekend. Maybe Sanders should look in the mirror. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

There's also the reality that for many historically Black colleges, the central mission isn't athletics championships, compared to some schools' self-image seemingly tied solely to how highly its men's basketball or football team is ranked in the polls. For years, these schools have been havens for students, places where they aren't "othered" for their race and made to feel unwelcome or lucky to be there, and in a country where teaching the totality of American history — which includes the good of Black achievement and the ugly of anti-Black racism — is being banned at an alarming rate, it's where they can learn the truth of their people.

Beyond that, the Division I HBCU schools play in the Football Championship Subdivision, or what used to be I-AA. The NFL isn't really drafting kids from those schools. This year there were only 10 FCS players taken out of 259 total, and over the past four drafts, only 41 players from FCS programs were selected. And with the transfer portal and name, image and likeness now in play, many Power Five programs can use FCS schools like minor league teams, tapping players to come up to the big leagues when they have success at the so-called lower level.

And as much as it pains me to give credit to the NFL for anything, it did help start a scouting combine for HBCU players in 2020, with all 32 teams represented at this year's event, held at the New Orleans Saints' practice facility — though it's fair to counter that of course all 32 teams attended because it would look bad if any chose not to do so.

None of this is to say that HBCU football programs can't and don't produce NFL talent: they have and they do. Only one player was drafted this year, but 17 have been signed as undrafted free agents. As someone who has reported on the league for over 15 years, there are benefits to going undrafted and getting to sign with the team of your choosing. It can be better than being picked in the sixth or seventh round of the NFL Draft because you may land in a better situation. Would you rather be an inside linebacker drafted by a team that already has three young, athletic inside linebackers or be a rookie free agent picking between five offers, with three of those five teams in need of a young, athletic inside linebacker?

While there are some teams that seem incapable of scouting or unwilling to turn over every stone, ask the New England Patriots how it worked out when they signed a Division II cornerback named Malcolm Butler to a rookie minicamp tryout in 2014. And Butler isn't the only one: at least one undrafted rookie has made the Patriots' initial 53-man roster for 19 straight years.

Back to Sanders: for all of his alleged concern about HBCU players not being drafted, when he bolted Jackson State for Colorado earlier this year, he brought arguably his two most talented players with him, his son and quarterback Shadeur Sanders, and defensive back Travis Hunter. Six other Jackson State players have also transferred to Colorado.

When he poached those players from JSU, was Sanders actually concerned about the state of HBCU football?

Sanders left Jackson State at the first chance he got, losing interest after three seasons and two Celebration Bowl game losses. The time for him to feign concern about Black college football ended the day he bolted for Colorado.